By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
MINNEAPOLIS (CBS) — Super Bowl LII between the Patriots and Eagles had all the makings of a classic. It was clear throughout the night that it was going to come down to one team making one play in one big spot to determine the winner.
Unfortunately for New England, that play was made by Brandon Graham, who bullied his way through right guard Shaq Mason and knocked the ball loose from Tom Brady. The bounce went the Eagles’ way, and Derek Barnett recovered the loose ball. That was the play.
But a lot more went into that game, so before moving on entirely from Super Bowl LII in New England, here’s a look at the Four Ups and Four Downs from the 41-33 loss.
It would be hard to find fault with the quarterback’s performance. He set a Super Bowl record with 505 passing yards, threw for three touchdowns with no picks, and escaped pressure on the final play to step up and put a desperation Hail Mary in the perfect spot while absorbing a heavy hit. It just didn’t connect.
Up until the final whistle, the Patriots knew they had a very good chance to win the game. That was all Tom Brady.
For much of Sunday night, it looked like this was going to be the signature night of Rob Gronkowski’s Hall of Fame career. And if he had come down with that Hail Mary in the end zone, it would have been.
Even still, Gronkowski established himself as the most unstoppable force in football yet again, to the tune of a nine-catch, 116-yard, two-touchdown performance. There was one drive where Gronkowski accounted for 68 of the Patriots’ 75 yards with four catches. He looked like an adult playing against children.
After the game, he said he’d contemplate his future and perhaps ponder retirement. The Patriots have to hope he’ll return, because the Super Bowl was just the latest display of Gronkowski being on his own planet.
Once again, Brady’s go-to receiver on third down was money. On a third-and-7 late in the first quarter, he sprung free for a 50-yard reception up the right sideline. On a third-and-2 late in the third quarter, Brady hit Amendola for 18 yards. On a third-and-3 early in the fourth, Amendola ran an out route, got himself open, and hauled in a seven-yard reception. On a fourth-and-10 on the Patriots’ final possession, he broke in over the middle and secured a pretty tough catch for 13 yards to keep hope alive.
In all, he caught eight passes for 152 yards. He also put a reverse pass on Brady’s hands, but the quarterback couldn’t haul it in. If the defense had done its job, Amendola would have been a huge reason why the Patriots won the game.
It’s all offense on this list. With Brandin Cooks knocked out of the game, Hogan stepped up in a big way. He caught six passes (on eight targets) for 128 yards and a touchdown.
Until we know — if we ever know — what prompted Belichick to pin Malcolm Butler to the sideline all night, then we’ll have to take the head coach at his word. And so, if the coach truly believed in his heart and mind that not playing his second-best cornerback in the Super Bowl was a good football decision, then it’s time to start questioning Belichick’s football decisions.
Granted, it likely was not a football decision. But that’s what Belichick said. And whatever Butler may or may not have done to get benched, Belichick still decided to make him active for the game. If this theoretical transgression was so bad, then why give him a helmet? It makes a louder statement to say “You did something wrong and you are not playing” than it does to say “You did something wrong but I’ll put you in the game if we suffer an injury.”
In any event, Butler’s teammates — past and present — all seemed a bit mystified by his absence. Bill’s made a lot of genius moves over the years. This does not appear to be one of them.
Joe Cardona/Ryan Allen/Stephen Gostkowski
Special teams matter, and we saw that on Sunday night, when both teams were sent scrambling a bit after some kicking failures.
For the Patriots, they were in trouble early in the second quarter, when they lined up for a chip shot 26-yard field goal. Joe Cardona’s snap was off the mark. Ryan Allen bobbled the snap. Stephen Gostkowski had to stop his momentum fully while breaking toward the ball.
Allen eventually got it down, and Gostkowski somehow got off a halfway decent attempt. But it clanked off the left upright and fell to the turf, taking what should have been three easy points off the board.
Later in the second quarter, after James White scored a touchdown to cut Philadelphia’s lead to three points, Gostkowski just flat-out missed the PAT. That cannot happen.
It was a game with just one total punt from both teams combined. Every possession and every point mattered. So the special teams miscues were significant.
In what was an unpleasant moment to watch, Cooks caught a pass up the field and tried to gain some extra yardage. He began running to his left while looking to his right. Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins was making a beeline directly for Cooks, who was unaware of this development.
So, as Cooks looked up the field, Jenkins came over and delivered a huge hit. Cooks went down to the turf in a heap and lay motionless for a long moment. He eventually made it to the sideline, but was shortly thereafter ruled out with a concussion.
He was exiting the stadium while wheeling his own luggage and without any doctors attending to him, so he was at least in good enough of a condition to do that after the game. But that was a nasty injury, and for a guy who looked poised to have a humongous game, it had to hurt doubly for him.
Eric Rowe/Jordan Richards/Johnson Bademosi
These guys shouldn’t necessarily be to blame for a coaching strategy that forced them to be out there more than they should have been, but the fact is that the coaching staff put these guys out there and gave them a chance to be Super Bowl contributors. They came up short.
Rowe’s night was, to be fair, up and down. He made some plays and can actually feel OK with how he performed in a huge spot. But he did give up the first touchdown of the game on a deep heave from Nick Foles to Alshon Jeffery. Rowe was in position but got caught in a Willie Mays-esque position in trying to play the ball. It didn’t work.
Richards, meanwhile, looked like a player who was trusted to take just 26 percent of the Patriots’ defensive snaps this year, one year after taking just 2 percent of the team’s defensive stats. In the Super Bowl, Belichick entrusted him to take 16 snaps. He did not reward the faith, and he looked very bad in failing to bump Corey Clement, failing to cover Corey Clement, and failing to tackle Corey Clement on what turned into a 55-yard catch-and-run by the Eagles running back in the final minutes of the first half. The Eagles would go on to score to extend their lead back to 10 points on that drive before halftime.
Bademosi played even less than Richards this season, and he too was asked to take on a larger role in the Super Bowl. He got 11 snaps, which may not seem significant, but his presence was felt. And on a third-and-6 early in the third quarter, Bademosi was in step with Nelson Agholor and was in position to make an easy tackle — or at least hold up the ball carrier until help came — and force a rare punt. He completely whiffed. Agholor turned it into a 17-yard gain. Instead of punting, the Eagles continued driving and eventually found the end zone to once again stretch their lead to 10 points.
“It just came down to basic football, basic fundamentals,” Rowe lamented after the loss. “It just hurts knowing that if we had this one tackle or if I had given this one leverage, just simple stuff that could have changed the outcome of the game.”
These just weren’t Super Bowl winning plays. And that’s as big a reason as any why the Patriots didn’t win the Super Bowl.