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CHRISTOPHER L. GASPER

Patriots’ defense — with Malcolm Butler benched — powerless to stop Eagles

BARRY CHIN/GLOBE STAFF

Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler (21) had his helmet on but wasn’t used on defense.

By Globe Columnist 

MINNEAPOLIS — The ultimate Do Your Job team couldn’t do anything to stop the Philadelphia Eagles offense on Sunday in Super Bowl LII. Instead of repeating as Super Bowl champions, the Patriots defense repeated the futile form it showed in the first four games of the season, allowing the Eagles and the franchise’s sixth Super Bowl title to elude them at U.S. Bank Stadium.

This was painful. Super Bowl XLII and the loss of a perfect season will always go down as the most disappointing of the Patriots’ three Super Bowl setbacks in the Bill Belichick-Tom Brady era. But this 41-33 loss to the Eagles in frigid Minnesota has to go down as the most frustrating. The Patriots lost a chance to lift the Lombardi Trophy because they couldn’t stop Eagles backup quarterback Nick Foles (28 of 43 for 373 yards and 3 touchdowns with an interception). They wasted another epic Super Bowl performance from Brady, who threw for a Super Bowl-record 505 yards and tossed three touchdown passes, the last of which to Rob Gronkowski gave the Patriots a 33-32 lead and put them 9 minutes and 22 seconds away from being back-to-back Super Bowl champions.

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All the Patriots needed was a stop. In the theme of the evening, the defense couldn’t hold on or hold up its end of the bargain. Instead, Philadelphia marched 75 yards in 7:01 to seize the lead. The Eagles converted a fourth-and-1 at their 45 with a 2-yard pass from Foles to Zach Ertz. Those two capped a drive the Patriots were powerless to stop, with Ertz scoring on a slant from 7 yards out, diving over a stumbling Devin McCourty to pierce the end zone and the hearts of Patriots fans.

This was a squandered opportunity for the Patriots, and it’s going to sting for a long time.

“Yeah, man,” said Patriots safety Duron Harmon. “You play to win championships, not to play to be second place. We had our opportunities; we just didn’t take advantage of it.”

Barry Chin/Globe Staff

Nick Foles celebrated with backup quarterback Nate Sudfeld after Foles’s touchdown in the second quarter.

It’s no mystery why the Patriots lost Super Bowl LII. They couldn’t stop Philadelphia from piling up yards (538) and points. The Eagles scored on all four of their second-half possessions.

What will remain a Minnesota Mystery is why the Patriots mothballed starting cornerback and Super Bowl XLIX hero Malcolm Butler, who didn’t play a defensive snap on a night when the Patriots couldn’t stop a nosebleed? This is the ultimate In Bill I Trust litmus test for Patriotologists. While guys such as Jordan Richards and Johnson Bademosi saw defensive snaps, Butler was relegated to the role of spectator along with the 67,612 in attendance.

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After the game, Butler brushed past assembled reporters in the funereal Patriots locker room and gave a quick salute from his forehead. Patriots coach Bill Belichick simply said, “Yes,” when asked if benching Butler, a pending free agent, was strictly a football decision.

Watch: Bill Belichick comments on not putting Malcolm Butler on the field

If that’s the case it was a dubious one that deserves to be second-guessed, especially when the Patriots defense couldn’t get off the field on third down (Philadelphia was 10 of 16) or fourth down (Philly was 2 for 2).

The Patriots masked their defensive deficiencies well following the first four games of the season, but they were exposed on the game’s biggest stage. You can only rely on the Eric Lee, Richards, Marquis Flowers, and Bademosi types, pedestrian NFL players, for so long against so many teams.

One of the telling scenes in the locker room was Bademosi giving a pep talk to Richards. The reality is that those are players who shouldn’t be relied upon in a game this big. The season-ending injury to linebacker Dont’a Hightower limited their options. But they had the choice of using Butler and elected not to.

“We’re just trying to put everybody in the right spot to make plays, the guys that we thought could make the plays in the right situation,” said Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia.

Chris O’Meara/Associated Press

Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia had no answer for the Eagles.

The Eagles shattered the illusion that Patricia and Belichick had carefully constructed of a bend-but-don’t-break defense that rendered yardage surrendered irrelevant.

The Patriots surrendered eight plays of 20 yards or more against the Eagles, three of which went for touchdowns. The Patriots as a defense pride themselves on not allowing the big play, but they got buried by them in Super Bowl LII.

“I think it was a little bit of everything,” said Flowers. “Obviously, as a defense, we want to be better. We had to be better, but this is a good team. This is the best team. That’s why they’re out there still. They executed better than us. Again, it’s a little bit of everything. You can’t keep playing with fire like that because eventually you’ll get burned, and we got burned today.”

The Patriots started the season by surrendering 42 points to Andy Reid and the Kansas City Chiefs. They ended it allowing 41 points to Reid disciple Doug Pederson and his Philadelphia Eagles. That’s not a coincidence.

You can’t play or coach scared if you are going to defeat the Patriots. All week the Eagles said they would not be cowed by the Patriots mystique. Actions speak louder than words in sports. The Eagles made their point about not fearing the Patriots loud and clear with two huge fourth-down conversions.

The first came at the end of the first half. Taking the Bold North theme of Super Bowl LII to heart, Philly put points on the scoreboard with a trick play on fourth and goal with 34 seconds left in the first half. Leading, 15-12, and facing fourth and goal from the 1, Pederson elected to go for it. Philadelphia direct-snapped the ball to running back Corey Clement, who gave it to tight end Trey Burton. A former college quarterback, Burton tossed the ball to a wide-open Foles, as the Eagles and their jubilant fans took a 22-12 lead into the half.

This will go down as the Minnesota track meet.

The teams set an NFL postseason record for combined yards with 1,151. The Patriots defense squandered a Super Bowl-record 613 yards of New England offense. Unlike last year, Brady couldn’t bail the Patriots out.

In a game devoid of defense — the teams combined for one punt, courtesy of Philadelphia — it was the Eagles who made the key defensive play. Brandon Graham strip-sacked Brady at the Patriots’ 26 with 2:09 to go.

Stan Grossfeld/Globe Staff

Tom Brady was strip-sacked by Brandon Graham (55) late in the fourth quarter.

You knew the Patriots were in trouble when they didn’t get one of their patented replay review overturned touchdowns. After the Patriots took the opening kickoff of the second half down and rode Gronkowski to a 5-yard touchdown to pull within 22-19, the Eagles got the type of favorable replay ruling that no one gets against the Patriots.

Clement beat Flowers out of the backfield for a 22-yard touchdown. But replay appeared to show Clement shifting or re-securing the ball before his second foot came down inbounds. However, Alberto “Reverse ’em All” Riveron, the NFL’s senior vice president of officiating, let the questionable call on the field stand.

Somewhere Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Jesse James, and Kelvin Benjamin, all of whom had touchdowns overturned against the Patriots this season, were seething.

What were the Patriots going to do without their best defensive play this season, the Riveron Reversal? Lean on Brady.

That was the only way out. Instead, a defense that couldn’t get stops sent the Patriots’ season to a dead end.

This miserable Minnesota Mall Super Bowl never should have happened.

It ended in a miserable fashion for the Patriots that never should have happened — and may not have if Butler had been allowed to play.


Christopher L Gasper is a Globe columnist He can be reached at cgasper@globe.com
Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.