If the season ended today, the Patriots would have to play (against the Jets!) on wild-card weekend. It’s a quick turnaround for a team, that just two games ago, had its sights set on another perfect regular season. But life comes at you fast, and if it’s entirely normal that New England would struggle with some crucial injuries, it was weird to see the Patriots’ coaching decisions do them in.
New England was dominated on special teams, giving up a blocked punt and a punt return for touchdowns. But the Eagles have one of the best special-teams units in the NFL, so no shame there. The offense couldn’t get moving, but even Tom Brady is going to feel the loss of his No. 1 receiver, his top pass-catching RB, and the greatest tight end of all time.
All of that is understandable. Less so was some oddly conservative play-calling, some questionable clock management, and above all, the decision to break out a rarely used drop kick on a kickoff in the second quarter.
The Patriots were up 14-0 at the time and looked firmly in control; then Bill Belichick got cute. Placekicker Stephen Gostkowski tossed the ball to safety Nate Ebner, a former junior rugby union star, who drop kicked the ball about 20 yards.
It was legal—one of those delightful little rulebook holdovers from the game’s rugby roots—and you could see what the Patriots were going for. If the football had gotten to bouncing in space, the charging New England hands team would have had a decent enough shot of coming up with it. They never got the chance, because Eagles special teamer Seyi Ajirotutu made a great play to corral the ball. Given a short field, the Eagles needed just eight plays to find the end zone and get on the board. It was the timing of the call that was as head-scratching as anything else; Philadelphia would score the next 35 points.
You can’t blame reporters for trying to penetrate Belichick’s mindset on the call, but post-loss grumpy-ass Bill wasn’t biting.
It was a helpful reminder that not even the Patriots get everything right, and that sometimes when Bill Belichick is being his usual stonewalling self, it’s not because he’s trying to obfuscate—it’s because he doesn’t actually have the answers.