PHILADELPHIA — Their offensive drought was over, and here the Eagles were coming, late in the fourth quarter Sunday, driving toward a tie game.
From their own 6-yard line they’d marched, 29 yards gained here, another 5 there, 10 more here. Across the two-minute warning and across midfield they moved, one more big bite of turf getting them all the way to the Patriots’ 26-yard line, the end zone in realistic sight for the first time since their only touchdown of the game, way back in the first few minutes of the second quarter.
What would the Patriots’ defense do? Could they make a last stand, return to the form we’d seen prior to an undressing two Sundays ago in Baltimore? Or would they bookend a slow start against the Eagles with a slower finish, thus negating the brilliance that had bridged them from the early second quarter to these final minutes?
This is where statements are made.
Four plays later, the defense had done its job. Not so much for the offense though, and one more slog of a possession later, the defense found itself with still one more stand to make. And once more, the defense made it, knocking down Carson Wentz’s final heave from his own 42-yard line, thus securing a hard-fought, 17-10 victory.
Maybe it can’t erase the memory of the Super Bowl loss to the Eagles two years ago, but it might just help with the sting of the loss to the Ravens two weeks ago, when the Patriots not only lost their first game of the season, but were forced to eat that bitterness through their bye week.
“You do just move on to the next game, but coming off a loss, you want to get back in the win column,” Jason McCourty said in the locker room afterward. “It was a long two weeks to think about it. You are only as good as your last performance, so whenever you were referencing us, you’re referencing the Baltimore game. For us to put that behind us, obviously go on the road against a good football team, that was big to go into a hostile environment and get a win.”
This is where statements are made.
Week by week, stand by defensive stand, this group is making itself heard. They were at their loudest Sunday in Philly across that final minute.
First, they forced the Eagles into a desperation-mode, fourth-and-10 play to end that initial drive, holding them at the 26-yard line by defending three pass plays. There would be a fourth: Wentz took the snap, and they blitzed him like crazy. Dont’a Hightower got there first, nearly swallowing the 6-foot-5-inch quarterback as the two of them fell to the turf, neither of them able to track the ball as it sailed downfield.
Toward the back of the end zone it flew, just past Nelson Agholor’s outstretched hands and beyond cornerback J.C. Jackson.
Turnover on downs, 58 seconds remaining, 17-10 lead secure.
Game over, right?
Not so fast.
The offense couldn’t get a first down, so back out the defense went. Five more plays — including a Jackson interception reversed by a penalty, and a 21-yard completion to tight end Zach Ertz — and a defense-wide vow not to repeat last season’s miracle in Miami, when the Dolphins won with a 69-yard multi-lateral walkoff touchdown in the final seven seconds, and it was finally over.
Despite the nerves of those final minutes, the sum total was another defining defensive performance. In the words of the man we are so accustomed to being the defining factor in Patriots wins, “They’re doing a great job.”
Tom Brady is appreciative, though it was hard to tell from his postgame demeanor. The quarterback was morose in his clipped comments, the frustration of the offense’s inability to get going written in his permanent frown. Without his defense Sunday, he knows this outcome would have been different.
“They’re keeping us in every game,” he said.
Outside of that one whopper of a touchdown drive, that clock-eating Eagles’ possession that spanned two quarters, that 16-play, 95-yard march to the end zone that used up 9:33 of the clock and featured but two third downs, neither more than five yards, the defense made its statement. They swallowed that indignity, forgetting the final 5-yard touchdown pass from Wentz to Dallas Goedert that was initially called an interception when Jonathan Jones ripped the ball from Geodert’s hands but was reversed on replay to a touchdown, and they made their adjustments.
For one stretch of 30 plays, they held the Eagles to 60 total yards.
They relied on their experience and they drew on their versatility. They threw a variety of different defenders at Ertz, who led all receivers with 94 yards on nine catches, but who is going to wake up this morning and feel every one of those yards.
“I feel like it’s a lot of smart players here who play for each other, hold each other accountable,” safety Terrence Brooks said. “Let everyone else give us an identity — let the film talk. You want to call us the Boogeymen or the scary men, whatever you want to call us, ghosts, whatever, we’re just out there to play football and win each week.”
They’re up to 9-1, holding off Baltimore for at least another week in the race to the top of the AFC. They’re looking at a few more difficult tests on tap: Dallas next week, Houston the following Sunday, Kansas City the week after that, excellent quarterbacks all. But week by week, stand by stand, this defense is saying something.
“Who cares, as long as we have more points than the other team,” Jason McCourty said. “Whether the offense is putting up 50 and we’re winning, or we’re only giving up 10 and we’re winning, the guys in this locker room know it’s going to take all three phases.”
Right now, one of them is definitely leading the way.