Go back to that frigid Sunday night in Minneapolis and remember the state of the teams as they walked off the Super Bowl field. The jubilant Eagles reveled in their championship, having rallied behind a backup quarterback who took them to unexpected glory. The stunned Patriots recoiled in their runner-up agony, having lost despite a star quarterback who did everything but catch a wide-open pass.
Two franchises heading in opposite directions — one believing the victory was bringing them to a new era of sustained success and stability, the other hoping the loss was not a harbinger of inevitable decline.
Or so it seemed.
Nearly two years later, as the Eagles and Patriots prepare for their rematch of Super Bowl LII Sunday afternoon in Philadelphia, the tables we thought had turned instead returned to their original places.
The Patriots were stunned all right, but they were not knocked out. They returned to the Super Bowl a year later, when Tom Brady & Co. beat the Rams, winning their second championship in three years and sixth since the 2001 season.
The Eagles were champions all right, but couldn’t make it past the divisional round last year, when they were forced again to turn to understudy Nick Foles. No more magic for the Super Bowl MVP, and this past offseason, the team jettisoned Foles in favor of incumbent (and now healthy) starter Carson Wentz.
Welcome to the last two decades in the NFL, where momentum seems to matter everywhere but in New England. Win or lose, up or down, the Patriots always manage to ride the waves evenly, eyes on the horizon, looking ahead. No hangovers here, thank you.
“Again, each team is its own team. It’s a new team,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said Tuesday, his team back to work after its bye week. “There may be carryover players, and coaches and some things may carry over, but I wouldn’t necessarily say they’re the same.
“Each year is a new year, and each of our performances from year to year is contingent on our preparation and our ability to perform in that season that we’re being judged in, not what we did in some other years.
“Personally, I don’t really put a lot of weight or a whole lot of evaluation into what’s happened in the past. I try to focus more on the present, and how that can be improved and accelerated to work to a higher level. That’s really what it’s about for me.”
His team’s results bear it out.
Lose a heartbreaking Super Bowl to the Eagles? Return to the Super Bowl the next year.
Win a dramatic Super Bowl over the Falcons? Return to the Super Bowl the next year.
That’s what the Patriots did in advancing to that game against the Eagles, doing so the year after they famously overcame a 28-3 deficit to win in overtime. The current state of the Falcons tells you all you need to know about how devastating such a loss can be. Dan Quinn is fighting for his coaching life and Matt Ryan’s offense hasn’t sniffed another title opportunity.
How does New England do it? Obviously, the stability provided by the 20-year partnership of Belichick and Brady permeates the entire franchise. But that sort of stability doesn’t happen by accident, coming instead as a byproduct of success. It also doesn’t guarantee success, as evidenced by Marvin Lewis’s 16-year run in Cincinnati without a single postseason victory. When it comes to stability and success, which one is the chicken and which one the egg?
In the Patriots’ case, the tone starts with Belichick, spreads through his staff, and sticks with his players. Were you at all surprised by Brady’s admission on WEEI Monday that he still carries “mental scar tissue” from the Eagles loss? Brady was as driven as anyone to replace the image of his inelegant attempt to catch Danny Amendola’s pass with one more hoist of a Lombardi Trophy.
“In a lot of ways, we learned from that year and we came back stronger the next year,” Brady said.
And stronger again this year, coming off their first loss but off to an 8-1 start nonetheless. The Eagles are tied atop the NFC East, but only because two straight wins have upped their record to 5-4.
“They deserved it that year, and now a couple years later we get a chance to play the organization again,” Brady said. “We’ve had a lot of changes, they’ve had a lot of changes. It’s totally different circumstances. Huge game for us. Big game for them. The better team is going to win.”
Or the better prepared. Remember, both teams are coming off a bye. But remember, too, Belichick is 14-5 after byes since taking over the Patriots. When he says he has to coach better, as he did in the wake of the Sunday night loss to the Ravens, he and his staff get no better opportunity to dive into it than the bye.
“We certainly try to evaluate what we may be able to do differently,” offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said. “Maybe what we need to practice more of when we need to spend more time on an individual drill or things like that.
“You can’t do everything in a bye week; it’s impossible to go over every single thing. If you try to do too much, sometimes, I’ve found out in the past, nothing ends up getting accomplished. I try to pick out a few things that we can figure out to try to make progress in and work with your guys in.
“A lot of that is individual techniques and fundamentals on things that we do a lot of, which doesn’t sound all that sexy, but it’s the truth. If we’re better fundamentally, if we’re better with our technique individually at each position on certain things that we repeat over and over again, our football team will ultimately benefit from that.”
And if you do that, even if you get knocked down, you can always get back up. The Patriots keep on proving it.