Patriots are headed in the wrong direction
FOXBOROUGH — There are usually a couple of occurrences you can count on as December unfurls in New England — darkness enveloping the late afternoons, Christmas lights going up and the Patriots putting the pedal to the pigskin metal to play their best football.
Well, make that two out of three. The oft-repeated In Belichick We Trust bromide about the Patriots is that they're better in December than they were in September. That didn't look like the case on Sunday at Gillette Stadium, where the Patriots dropped (or was it onside drop-kicked?) a 35-28 decision to Chip Kelly and the Philadelphia Eagles.
Instead of peaking this time of year, the Patriots have plateaued for a few weeks. On Sunday, they went downhill, following up their overtime loss in Denver with another to drop consecutive games for the first time since the second and third games of the 2012 season. The fact is the Patriots were a better team in September and October, when they were healthy, plowing through opponents, exacting Deflategate accusation payback, and putting up 30 points with ease. If the playoffs started today, the 10-2 Patriots would not have a first-round bye.
"If you want to win consistently, you got to do things well consistently," said Tom Brady. "We just haven't played winning football the last two weeks."
The truth is, it has been longer than that.
You have to go back to before Halloween (Oct. 29 against the Miami Dolphins) to find the last time Brady and the Patriots put up 30 points in a game, not coincidentally that is the last game they played the entirety of employing healthy versions of Dion Lewis, Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski.
The Patriots are the team that is supposed to be impervious to injuries, full of replaceable parts and interchangeable pieces. But that's just a Laundry Logic lullaby. There is no Next Man Up when the man down is a genetic freak of a tight end like Gronkowski, who missed his first game of the season with the bruised/sprained knee he suffered in Denver.
Brady can't get rid of the ball in nanoseconds when Edelman and Gronk aren't there to shake their guys. That's why TB12 got whacked around like a pinata once again, sacked four times and suffering 13 hits.
This defeat was stunning on all counts — the manner of the Patriots' demise via 35 straight points and special teams breakdowns, the opponent responsible for it and how it materialized from the firmament of Foxborough without warning.
Entering the contest, the Eagles had dropped three straight games, allowed 45 points in their last two defeats, and veteran players were openly questioning Kelly's unorthodox methods.
But old Chip, a New Hampshire native and certified FOB (Friend of Belichick), took a chunk out of the Patriots.
The Patriots looked poised to hand Philadelphia, which had surrendered 10 touchdown passes in its previous two games, another lopsided loss.
They took a 14-0 lead with 7:47 left in the first half, when Brady found Danny Amendola, returning from a sprained knee, for an 11-yard touchdown, Brady's 30th TD toss of the season.
Amendola ran the route like he was an Irish step dancer, completely befuddling an overmatched Walter Thurmond. The Patriots were going to toy with another hapless foe.
Belichick then tried to checkmate Kelly with an unusual drop-kick, onside kick from former rugby player Nate Ebner. The Eagles pounced on the telegraphed kick at their 41. Eight plays later, Sam Bradford hit a diving Zach Ertz with a dart on third and goal for a 5-yard touchdown with 4:04 left in the first half.
It was the opening salvo in what would become 35 straight points scored by the Eagles, who found the end zone on offense, defense and via a pair of special teams touchdowns.
Special teams calamity claimed the Patriots' lead with 15 seconds left in the half. Ryan Allen's punt was blocked by Philadelphia's Chris Maragos and scooped up by Najee Goode, who returned it 24 yards for a touchdown.
The Patriots were on the precipice of regaining the lead in the third quarter, when Brady tried to squeeze a pass into Amendola.
The stunned Foxborough Faithful went from being poised to hear Bon Jovi's "This Is Our House" — the song played after Patriots touchdowns — to watching Malcolm Jenkins take it to the house for a 99-yard interception return.
Tom Brady on his 100-yard interception
Tom Brady discusses the 100-yard interception that he threw and how the Patriots will move forward next week.
On the ensuing drive, the Patriots were forced to punt from their 37. Eagles waterbug Darren Sproles took the ball at his 17 and zig-zagged 83 yards for a touchdown. It was 28-14 with 4:18 left in the third.
The Patriots made it interesting at the end because they have Brady, who finished 29 of 56 for 312 yards with three touchdowns and two interceptions.
But the damage was done.
"You give up 21 points when the defense isn't on the field you lose probably 98 percent of those games," said Belichick. "We just got to get back to work. We got to do a better job."
This is usually the time of year the Patriots do their best work. Since 2001, the Patriots have the best December record in football, 52-9, including Sunday.
"I think this time of year we turn up our preparation, our focus. Tonight, it just didn't happen," said Devin McCourty. "So, I don't think it's something where we need to panic. We have been practicing hard and preparing hard. We just had enough bad plays that we couldn't overcome today. That's what it came down to."
There is no need to panic. The Patriots have four games left.
Cincinnati and Denver play each other on Dec. 28, so barring a tie, one of them is going to pick up another loss and pave the way for the Patriots to get a first-round bye.
But the fact is the Patriots better hope that their best is in front of them, not behind them.
Like mall Santas and Red Sox general managers, this is usually the Patriots' best time of year.
After a forgettable effort, the Patriots need to make the rest of December a month to remember.
Patriots coach Bill Belichick discusses loss to Eagles
Patriots coach Bill Belichick discusses the team’s loss to the Eagles 35-28.