By Gregory Hunt
A very vulnerable-looking New England Patriots team played their worst game of the season Sunday night, dropping a 35-28 decision at Gillette Stadium to a Philadelphia Eagles team that came into the game with a 4-7 record. It was the second consecutive loss for the Patriots, dropping New England’s record to 10-2. With the Cincinnati Bengals and Denver Broncos also sitting at 10-2, New England is now in danger of not getting a first-round bye in this year’s AFC playoffs.
Thanks to a number of injuries, there has been a lack of continuity among both the offensive line and the wide receivers, and this finally caught up with the Patriots this week. The offensive line gave up four sacks and allowed quarterback Tom Brady to get hit at least a dozen other times. When Brady did have time to throw, he didn’t seem to be in sync with his receivers. Two times, wide receiver Brandon LaFell appeared to give up on his routes, which led to an interception on one of those occasions. LaFell also dropped a pass on New England’s final drive, costing the Patriots a critical first down.
Brady’s targets had trouble getting separation from Philadelphia’s defenders for most of the game. In the third quarter with the score tied 14-14, Brady tried to force a pass to a double-covered Danny Amendola at the goal line and it was intercepted by Malcolm Jenkins, who returned it 99 yards for a Philadelphia touchdown. The Eagles never trailed again, and they eventually built a 35-14 lead before New England scored a pair of fourth-quarter touchdowns in a comeback attempt that fell short.
Tight end Scott Chandler was expected to step up his game in the absence of the injured Rob Gronkowski, but he was never a factor. He did make a 30-yard reception to set up New England’s first touchdown, but the Patriots were already trailing by three touchdowns by the time he caught a touchdown reception in the fourth quarter.
Even though the New England defense occasionally had difficulty containing Philadelphia running back Darren Sproles, it performed relatively well, giving up only two offensive touchdowns. Linebacker Jamie Collins returned from an illness that kept him sidelined for a month, and he ended up being among the team leaders in tackles. Collins also forced a fumble late in the fourth quarter, giving New England a final chance at completing a would-be miracle comeback. Cornerback Malcolm Butler and safety Patrick Chung played particularly well in coverage, holding Philadelphia quarterback Sam Bradford to just 120 yards passing.
Special Teams: F
The game was essentially lost on the punting game. With 15 seconds left in the second quarter, a breakdown in protection led to a blocked Ryan Allen punt that was returned 24 yards for a touchdown. It was the first time in 97 games that New England had allowed a punt to be blocked. Then in the third quarter, New England allowed Sproles to return a punt 83 yards for a touchdown.
Kicker Stephen Gostkowski struggled on kickoffs, getting only one touchback the entire night; although one kickoff was an onside kick successfully recovered by the Patriots. Matthew Slater had his usual solid night, making an impressive tackle on one punt return, and screening Sproles away from the ball on another, which allowed that punt to be downed inside the five-yard line.
It’s not often that Bill Belichick gets out-coached, but this was a game filled with questionable coaching decisions. The first one came in the second quarter, when New England attempted an onside kick after taking a 14-0 lead. The kick was actually a short drop kick by Nate Ebner, which Philadelphia recovered on its own 41-yard line. The Eagles took advantage by driving 59 yards for their first touchdown of the game.
Toward the end of the second quarter, New England’s play-calling backfired. The Patriots began a drive from its own 13-yard line with 1:32 to play, but they initially seemed content to run out the clock by rushing the ball on three of their first four plays. Then on a 3rd-and-5 from the New England 38-yard line, an incomplete pass intended for Chandler fell incomplete, forcing the Patriots to punt with 15 seconds remaining. That punt was the one that was blocked and returned for a touchdown.
Finally, New England’s comeback attempt was inhibited by the decision to attempt an onside kick with three minutes remaining in regulation. At that point, the Patriots had come to within one touchdown of the Eagles and had two time outs remaining plus the two-minute warning. The Eagles recovered the kick at the New England 46-yard line and gained one first down before New England got the ball back with 1:02 remaining. The Patriots started that final drive on their own 25-yard line, and they couldn’t overcome the poor field position cause by the onside kick.
The Patriots are now faced with the challenge of playing three of their last four games of the regular season on the road. It begins next week when they travel to NRG Stadium to face a 6-6 Houston Texans team led by former New England backup quarterback Brian Hoyer. Currently, the Patriots are sitting in the #3 position in the AFC behind #1 Cincinnati and #2 Denver, so next week’s contest against Houston is looking like a must-win game.
Gregory Hunt is a Boston native and a life-long fan of the Patriots, Red Sox, Bruins and Celtics. He’s also particularly fond of lacrosse, IndyCar racing and women’s college basketball. He currently works for Examiner.com where he serves as the Senior Manager of Content and Media Access. He also writes for Examiner.com as the New England Patriots Examiner. His work can be found on aExaminer.com.