MINNEAPOLIS -- Tom Brady capped the Patriots’ third straight 75-yard march with a beautiful touchdown pass to Rob Gronkowski. That put the Eagles behind the eight-ball for the first time in the Super Bowl midway through the fourth quarter. It was all happening, again. But at Pats defense, so adept at coming up with a play when they absolutely had to basically since early October just couldn’t get off the field, continuing a theme that plagued them all evening.
First, it was a drive-extending completion from Nick Foles to Zach Ertz on third-and-six. Later, near midfield, the Pats swarmed Torrey Smith on third-and-one a rare stop. But the Eagles wisely went for it on fourth down -- did you see what Tom Brady had done to that point? -- and it was the Foles-to-Ertz combo platter that worked again.
Finally, and fittingly, it was that now-renowned duo striking again, this time on third-and-seven from the Pats’ 11. Ertz split wide, drove hard upfield before breaking off a slant. Devin McCourty had him one-on-one but slipped as he tried to break on the route. Ertz hauled in the pass, stretched for the end zone and broke the plane before the ball popped free. The play would be reviewed but the result would stand. Touchdown, Eagles.
That capped an impressive run of Philly’s offense making plays when they had to. The Eagles went 10-for-16 on third downs and 2-for-2 on 4th down, including that gutsy, beautiful touchdown pass from tight end Trey Burton to Foles.
“We didn’t get off the field on third down,” said safety Duron Harmon. “That’s what it came down to. third down. What were they,” he asked reporters. When he was told the stats, all he could muster was “that’s the game right there.”
“You need to make those plays and we just didn’t make them,” said Devin McCourty.
Bill Belichick didn’t offer much insight in his postgame comments, but did note the Eagles “had a good design and kept us off-balance.”
Defensive coordinator Matt Patricia concurred.
“They’re an outstanding third-down and red-area team. We knew that going in. They executed better than we did in those situations. They made some really big plays in those that you knew were going to come up in the game. Combined, we weren’t really good enough on third down.”
Still, even down by 10 at halftime, you fully expected that Patricia would be able to make some adjustments to slow down the Eagles. After all, he had done that for the better part of the season in what was clearly his best work as the DC. But even an extra-long break (the Super Bowl halftime lasted 30 minutes), the Pats weren’t able to deliver the necessary good when pressed.
“I thought we were going to able to get a stop,” said Harmon. “We came close a bunch of times…”
“It was just execution,” said a red-eyed Trey Flowers, who still hadn’t removed half his gear some 25 minutes after the game. “They had high execution. We had a lack of execution. It is what it is.”
It probably would have been beneficial for the Pats to have had Malcolm Butler play but, according to Bill Belichick, the veteran cornerback and the team leader in defensive snaps this year wasn’t as good a fit as Eric Rowe on this night.
“We put the best players out there and the gameplan out there because we thought it’d be the best to win,” he said, adding that it wasn’t a disciplinary decision when asked.
“He’s a great player, you know?” Stephon Gilmore said of Butler. “I want everybody to play. He could have helped us, maybe. I don’t know. That’s how the game goes sometimes.”
He certainly could haven helped on an 18-yard completion to Nelson Agholor early in the third quarter. Instead, the Pats turned to Johnson Bademosi as their third corner. He was completely lost on the play. That conversion helped revive the Eagles drive, a drive that eventually ended with that 23-yard Corey Clement touchdown catch over Marquis Flowers.
“They executed at a high level,” said Patricia. “There really wasn’t a lot of miscues by them at all and obviously we didn’t execute well enough. It starts with me.”
After his press conference, Patricia walked through that Pats locker room for the last time, embracing several players, including defensive tackle Malcom Brown. They both had tears in their eyes. They both knew that what they did as a defense just wasn’t enough and there’s no way to rewrite. The numbers were right there for everyone to see.