By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
MINNEAPOLIS (CBS) — Fourth quarter. Super Bowl. Bill Belichick’s Patriots, leading by a point, going up against second-year coach Doug Pederson and inexperienced backup quarterback Nick Foles. Nine minutes and 22 seconds on the clock.
It was the mismatch to end all mismatches. The Patriots, behind a gargantuan effort by Tom Brady and the offense, were certain to win a third Super Bowl in four years. It was a mere formality. Only Tom Coughlin and Eli Manning have stood toe-to-toe with Belichick’s team in this situation and lived to tell about it. Everybody else succumbs to the pressure and hangs their heads as the red, white and blue confetti rains down upon them.
And when the Eagles faced a fourth-and-1 at their own 45-yard line, all it required was one play by the New England defense to seal the win. One stop, and the Patriots take over in Philadelphia territory, in range for a putaway score. Considering the Philadelphia defense couldn’t stop Brady all night, a touchdown was a safe bet.
But there was Foles, pressured by Trey Flowers, throwing off his back foot to Zach Ertz. The tight end was hit by Duron Harmon, right at the marker. He caught the ball. He had enough for the first down.
Perhaps he was aided by a Brent Celek pick on Devin McCourty, and some may argue that in reaching for the first down, Ertz didn’t have full possession with enough yardage. But in the NFL, typically when you make the play, these things work in your favor.
First down, Eagles. With life.
That was the second time that drive that they barely picked up enough yardage to keep the drive moving. Four plays prior, Foles had hit Ertz on a third-and-6. Seven yards. Life.
Earlier in the game, after throwing incomplete on third-and-goal from the 1-yard line, the Eagles dialed up a trick play. A direct snap to the running back, with an end-around to the tight end, who passed the ball to the quarterback in the end zone for a touchdown.
And that was the story of the night. While there’s no taking away the fearlessness with which Foles and the offense played, the Patriots simply have higher standards. The defense fell flat in embarrassing fashion, on the largest stage in sports.
“The defense just didn’t come to play,” linebacker Kyle Van Noy stated bluntly. “We just didn’t play well.”
“We didn’t tackle well. We didn’t play good on third down. Situational football awareness was terrible,” safety and defensive captain Duron Harmon said. “You have to give your hats off to them. They made plays and we didn’t. So, that’s why they’re the champs and we’re not.”
Stephon Gilmore said it wasn’t anything tricky or complicated that as beating them.
“Those were the same routes we saw on film. We just didn’t make the plays,” Gilmore said. “Same stuff. We just couldn’t get off the field on third down. We couldn’t make a play to get the ball back to our offense.”
Cornerback Eric Rowe expressed frustration that the Patriots as a team struggled with the simplest of tasks.
“It just came down to basic football, basic fundamentals,” Rowe said.”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.”
After the fourth-down conversion in the fourth quarter, Foles connected with Nelson Agholor for 10 yards on a second-and-9. On the next snap, Foles connected with Torrey Smith, sneaking behind Devin McCourty deep over the middle, for 18 yards.
Foles threw to the left side, to Agholor, for another 10 yards and another first down. After a run and an incompletion, the Eagles faced a third-and-7 at the New England 11-yard line. The conservative and safe call would have been to run the ball, force the Patriots to take their second timeout, and then kick a field goal to go up by one point and hope the defense can make a stop.
But Pederson had confidence. At that point, how could he have not? And so did Foles. Pederson and Eagles offensive coordinator dialed up a pass. With Ertz in man coverage against McCourty, Foles looked nowhere else. He hit his tight end on a slant, and with McCourty stumbling to the turf, Ertz made the catch and made the dive across the goal line.
When he came down, the Eagles had completed a 75-yard drive that took a whopping 7:01 off the clock and put the Eagles ahead with 2:21 left to play.
Numerous times, the Patriots needed to make one play, one stop, to win the Super Bowl. Consistently, they were bested by Foles.
The Patriots took over on offense, and the belief in the building — the reasonable belief, anyway — was that Brady was going to lead the game-wining drive to secure his sixth Super Bowl title. That’s what he does. Plus, he was in the midst of a 504-yard, three-touchdown, no-interception night. He was on fire.
But then the Eagles’ defense did what they did. They fought, finally, to get to Brady for the first time of the night. Brandon Graham delivered a hit a split-second before Brady released a pass. The ball came loose. Derek Barnett recovered it. And that was, essentially, that. A Philadelphia field goal made the league eight, and Brady’s last-second desperation heave into the end zone fell to the turf.
“Obviously, I didn’t do a good enough job here with the defense,” defensive coordinator Matt Patricia said. “I just feel really bad for our guys and that we didn’t put them in a situation that allowed them to be successful in the game.”
There was a lot more to that game, obviously, than just one drive. In a game with 1,151 combined yards of offense, that’s always the case. And considering the Eagles only had to punt once all night long and converted 10 of their 16 third downs and both of their fourth-down attempts, the defensive struggles for New England didn’t suddenly crop up in the middle of the fourth quarter.
And the fact that Bill Belichick didn’t use Malcolm Butler at all on defense remains inexplicable. He’s not a perfect corner, but he has served the role of a No. 1 cornerback in the past. And he’s served it well. Keeping him on the sideline in favor of players like Johnson Bademosi and Jordan Richards is a decision that has no defense. If we are to take Belichick at his word that the decision was not disciplinary and was strictly football-related, then the legendary head coach is going to have a hard time living this one down. It might have been reasons one, two and three why the Patriots went home loser.
But this game — like any game — reached a point where nothing else mattered but the present task at hand. A drive where everything is on the line and everyone knows it.
This game came down to which team could make a play when needed. The Patriots had ample opportunity on the final drive, but failed every single time, all the way up the field.
In doing so, they made history. Just not the type of history they wanted to make.
“We just had to play good football and we didn’t,” Harmon said. “I mean, we didn’t stop them at all. So that’s exactly why they are the Super Bowl champs and we’re sitting here in second place.”