MINNEAPOLIS — The Patriots’ defense finally ran out of answers.
This is the team that is famous for making second-half adjustments. This is the team that owns the fourth quarter because it runs hill sprints at the end of each practice. This is the team that always comes up with a red zone stop, or a timely turnover, or gets off the field on third down.
But none of that came to fruition in Sunday’s 41-33 loss to the Eagles in Super Bowl LII.
“Just didn’t play well,” a dejected Duron Harmon said afterward in the locker room. “I believe in everybody on this team. We put in a lot of work together, we grind together. Thought we were going to be able to get a stop. Came close multiple times. Just couldn’t do it.”
Matt Patricia likely coached his last game as Patriots defensive coordinator before taking the Lions’ head coaching job, and his finale was a dud. The Patriots’ defense never quite matched up with the team’s offense this season, and a bend-but-don’t-break defense sprung all kinds of leaks on the NFL’s biggest stage.
The Patriots scored 33 points and Tom Brady lit up the scoreboard on Sunday, but the Patriots will go down as the only team to gain 600 yards (612 actually) and lose the Super Bowl thanks to a porous defense that couldn’t stop Nick Foles and the Eagles.
And for whatever reason, the Patriots couldn’t come up with any answers during the elongated Super Bowl halftime.
“I just know we didn’t get the job done when we needed to,” linebacker Marquis Flowers said. “They out-executed us.”
The Patriots traditionally own the second half, particularly the fourth quarter. In the regular season, they outscored opponents, 187-136, in the second half. The margin was only 91-85 in the fourth quarter, but those numbers got skewed by some garbage-time points in Patriots blowout wins.
We know what the Patriots can do in the fourth quarter. Between the Super Bowl wins over the Seahawks and Falcons and the AFC Championship game win over the Jaguars, the Patriots outscored those three opponents, 51-3, in the fourth quarter and overtime.
But the Patriots’ defense was gashed by the Eagles for 22 points and 323 yards in the first half, and was gashed for 19 points and 215 yards in the second half. That’s 41 points and 538 yards — not exactly a championship effort.
The Eagles had four possessions in the second half: Touchdown, field goal, touchdown, field goal. They drove 85, 51, and 75 on their three real drives, then tacked on the field goal for insurance at the end.
With a creative use of run-pass option plays, the Eagles kept the Patriots off balance and hit them for eight plays of 20-plus yards. The Patriots’ defense finally created its first turnover (Harmon’s first-half interception) in five games, but uncharacteristically couldn’t come up with a big play in the second half, and had no answers for the Eagles.
“They got the best [out] of all of their skill players,” coach Bill Belichick said. “They had a good design and kept us off-balance. Just give them credit – they did a great job.”
Brady and the offense kept striking back with touchdowns. They came back from 10 points down in the second half and had everyone thinking of another dream comeback scenario.
But the defense couldn’t get a stop. The Eagles were 10-of-16 on third down, including 6-of-8 in the second half. The Eagles’ game-winning touchdown drive milked more than seven minutes off the clock, as the Eagles played keep-away with more than 34 minutes of possession.
“It kid of felt like whoever had the ball last could win this game,” Eagles coach Doug Pederson said. “I knew that we were going to have to score a touchdown in that situation. A field goal wasn’t going to be good enough, not against Brady and the Patriots.”
The giant elephant in the locker room, of course, was the surprise benching of starting cornerback Malcolm Butler. Eric Rowe got the start at cornerback, Patrick Chung played in the slot for much of the night, Jordan Richards got some run in the dime defense, and and special teamer Johnson Bademosi even took some reps over Butler, who played just one snap on the punt team.
Butler could have helped, and the debate will rage for weeks whether he would have done enough to help slow down the Eagles.
“They gave up on me,” Butler told ESPN. “I don’t know what it was. I guess I wasn’t playing good or they didn’t feel comfortable. I don’t know. But I could have changed that game.”
The Patriots’ defenders weren’t in much of a mood to talk after the game, but acknowledged that they were flat outplayed by a talented Eagles offense. Nick Foles threw for 373 yards and three touchdowns, becoming only the second quarterback in the Patriots’ last 13 games to crack 300 yards. And the Eagles’ run game gashed the Patriots’ front seven, with LeGarrette Blount and Jay Ajayi combining to rush for 147 yards on 23 carries (6.4 average).
“It wasn’t complicated stuff,” Richards said. “We just didn’t tackle well, didn’t get off blocks, didn’t cover well enough.”
The Patriots trailed, 22-12, at halftime, but they weren’t panicking. They had been in far worse positions before.
“It’s never a matter of not believing in one another,” Richards said. “That’s not a question at all.”
They just, for once, didn’t have any answers in the second half.
Video: Eric Rowe makes defensive play on end zone throw to Alshon Jeffrey: