The Patriots still have plenty of hope for the 2015 season. With four games remaining, they can earn a first-round bye and the No. 1 seed. They will get Rob Gronkowski back soon enough, Julian Edelman hopefully will return and be himself for the playoffs, and the defense is still championship-caliber.
But Sunday's 35-28 loss to the Eagles was an eye-opener, because it exposed a few flaws that didn't appear to exist — and we're not talking about on special teams, either. Those plays were a little fluky. These developments were not:
■ The offensive line is a mess. The unit had several question marks following the offseason retirement of Dan Connolly and early-season injuries to Ryan Wendell and Bryan Stork, but passed all of its tests when Tom Brady was firing lasers to Edelman, Gronkowski and Dion Lewis.
Now that Brady is working with the backups, this unit is being exposed. The Eagles, who had allowed 90 points in their past two games, bullied the Patriots' offensive line on Sunday to the tune of 13 quarterback hits and eight additional pressures. Connor Barwin, Vinny Curry, and Brandon Graham feasted, getting the better of Sebastian Vollmer, Marcus Cannon, Josh Kline, and Tre Jackson throughout the game.
And it's not like the Eagles threw a bunch of exotic schemes at the Patriots. They disguised their pass rush on a handful of snaps, but mostly lined up in a four-man front and beat the Patriots with a steady diet of inside stunts and outside speed rushes.
Per the NFL game books, Brady has taken 31 hits the past three games after taking 42 in the first nine games. If Brady isn't getting the ball out of his hand instantly, the offensive line can't protect him.
■ The linebackers were a step slow. The Patriots have one of the best corps in the NFL, but the Eagles showed that the Patriots’ linebackers can be beaten.
DeMarco Murray only played 14 of 61 snaps, but Kelly correctly explained the Patriots have one of the biggest linebacker units in the league, so the game plan was to create mismatches with the Eagles' smaller, quicker running backs (Darren Sproles and Kenjon Barner).
Sproles, who stands 5 feet 6 inches, was being covered by Collins, who is 6-3, and it wasn't an easy matchup. Sproles had 100 of the Eagles' 248 total yards on offense, and he and Barner kept the chains moving with 105 yards on the ground at 4.3 yards per carry.
The little scatbacks are an issue for the Patriots' linebackers.
■ Tom Brady is out of sorts right now. It’s easy to say Brady is struggling because his receivers aren’t getting open, but that’s too simplistic, and not a fair characterization.
Brady is clearly uncomfortable without Gronk, Edelman, and Lewis, and is playing like he did in the first four weeks of the 2014 season, when he didn't trust his offensive line, had limited field vision, and forced throws to his favorite receivers.
That 99-yard interception touchdown for Malcolm Jenkins should have never happened. Brady stared down Danny Amendola and tried to squeeze a pass into double coverage. The correct read was Scott Chandler, who had easily beaten Kiko Alonso on a quick out and was open near the left pylon.
Brady's current receivers don't get nearly the same separation, but he's not being very decisive with the football, he's not seeing the whole field. He just chucks the ball deep when he feels nothing is there, and the Patriots have been resorting to gimmick plays (surprise onside kicks, option passes to Brady) just to stay in the game.
When the Patriots had the ball
■ Want to know where the Patriots missed Gronkowski the most? Brady barely used the middle of the field and didn’t throw one pass deep down the seams, where Gronk thrives. Only eight of Brady’s 56 throws went down the middle, and only one was more than 10 yards (a 19-yarder to Keshawn Martin in the fourth quarter).
The Patriots ran a simple offensive game plan — lots of quick outs, quick hitches, swing passes and bubble screens to the sidelines. Brady definitely fired some nice passes to the outside, and threw up a couple of nice lobs to Chandler and Amendola (two of which were caught for touchdowns), but the Eagles played a lot of Cover 3 zone defense, and the best way to beat the zone is over the middle. Would've liked to see Chandler streaking down the seams a few times.
■ LaFell definitely seemed to cut off his route on Brady’s deep chuck to the end zone in the first quarter (Brady missed Chandler wide open on the sideline again on that play), and had a miscommunication on the second interception, with Brady chucking it into the end zone and LaFell breaking his route off toward the sideline. I think Brady was being magnanimous on Monday when he said he was trying to throw the ball out of the end zone but came up short. He was protecting LaFell.
■ I wonder if the Patriots will regret using/wasting that Brady option pass trick play on a Week 13 game against the Eagles. Probably can’t use that play for the rest of the season.
White was lucky his touchdown catch wasn't called back, though: Chandler picked two Eagles defenders and could have been called for offensive pass interference.
One lineman who played well was Stork, who was mauling defenders on several toss sweeps and knocked Fletcher Cox into next Tuesday on one of Brady's sacks.
■ Here’s what I hated the most about the Patriots’ clock management at the end of the first half: They couldn’t decide whether to be conservative or aggressive. The first play was a run, and they let 30 seconds wind off the clock (conservative). Then they snapped the ball with :13 left on the playclock (why?), and ran the ball again (conservative). But they picked up a first down, so they called a pass on the next play (aggressive). Once Brady got sacked, they ran the ball up the middle on the next play (conservative). They could have just let the clock wind down to zero at this point, but called a pass (aggressive). The pass fell incomplete, forced the Patriots to punt with 15 seconds left, and the punt got blocked and returned for a touchdown.
Just brutal game management. Not what we expect from a Bill Belichick-coached team.
When the Eagles had the ball
■ The Eagles’ longest play was 20 yards and only two drives went more than 22 yards, so the Patriots’ defense did its part. But the Patriots didn’t blitz much, and their pass rush didn’t get home, hitting Sam Bradford only three times and sacking him once.
Jabaal Sheard had two pressures and a run stuff, Chandler Jones had three run stuffs, Malcom Brown had a tremendous tackle for loss and is showing great improvement throughout his rookie season, and Jerod Mayo had a sack, QB hit and a pass breakup in limited snaps.
Jamie Collins looked a bit tentative in his first game back, and didn't always diagnose the run plays correctly, letting Sproles hit a few big runs on the outside. Alan Branch was quiet on the interior after a standout game against Denver last week.
■ Devin McCourty may as well be listed as a cornerback now. Duron Harmon was the deep center fielder on Sunday, while McCourty played in the box as the “robber” or in press-man coverage in the slot throughout the entire game, covering wide receivers as well as tight end Zach Ertz.
McCourty got tripped up with Ertz's feet and fell on Ertz's touchdown catch, and understandably had trouble setting the edge in the run game when he played down in the box. The Patriots only played two traditional cornerbacks all game (Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan) but had at least three safeties on the field for 53 of 61 snaps (they had five safeties on the field on one third-down play).
■ Nate Ebner’s drop-kick onside kick probably would have worked had he put a little more air under the ball. I understand Belichick’s point, that with six Eagles defenders up on the line of scrimmage, there was plenty of open field for the other five players to cover, and a pooch kick to an empty part of the field is not an easy play for a team to cover.
That said, it's still a low-percentage play for the Patriots, and a tough spot for Ebner. It's one thing to execute that play in practice, another to do it under the bright lights at Gillette and with only one chance to execute. And with a 14-0 lead and a defense that had forced four straight punts, there was no need to get cute.
■ It looked as if Geneo Grissom should have blocked Chris Maragos on the punt block. Instead, he and long snapper Joe Cardona double-teamed Bryan Braman, allowing Maragos to scream in untouched.
The Patriots had seen this rush before on film, but didn't correctly identify their assignments.
■ The Patriots looked like they had Sproles’s 83-yard punt return covered pretty well, although they fell in the trap of getting “stacked up” vertically — having two defenders occupy the same lane.
Ryan Allen and Darius Fleming should have had him around the 45-yard line.
■ Patriots this season on traditional onside kicks: 2 for 2. Patriots with Ebner attempting the onside kicks: 0 for 2. Just let Stephen Gostkowski kick the ball.