MINNEAPOLIS – All season, the Patriots were a team that could dominate you offensively, but was too often vulnerable defensively, particularly on third-down plays. Yet, New England still managed to win 15 games and reach the Super Bowl for a record 10th time, in part because Bill Belichick's club also benefitted several times from favorable replay review rulings that altered the complexion – even the outcome – of some games.
Super Bowl LII might be remembered as a microcosm of the 2017 Patriots, with one major exception.
From the start, when Philly opened with the ball, the Patriots' defense had the Eagles on their heels much of the time, but allowed them to convert too many 3rd downs that led to scores. Observers might question why cornerback Malcolm Butler – seen apparently weeping with his hand over his eyes during the pre-game National Anthem performance – didn't see the field Sunday night.
Asked afterward about the move to bench Butler, a frustrated safety/co-captain Duron Harmon replied, "Ask Coach [Belichick]. I play football. He makes personnel decisions."
Without Butler on the field, the likes of Jordan Richards and Johnson Bademosi saw more playing time than they should have, and were targeted and exploited on a number of Eagles big plays.
"It just wasn't good enough," Richards admitted afterward.
New England's D had difficulty with Philadelphia's run-pass options – those so-called RPOs – for most of the night, as well. No entirely surprisingly, though, as these Patriots regularly struggle to defend those plays.
Meanwhile, it was evident that the Patriots could move the ball nearly at will on the Eagles, but early on, in critical situations, the O and the field goal/PAT units too often self-destructed.
It didn't help matters, either, that tight end Rob Gronkowski went catchless in the first two quarters. Or that New England's highest-profile offseason acquisition on offense, wide receiver Brandin Cooks, was literally knocked out of the contest before he barely had a chance to break a sweat – another metaphor for the Patriots, who mostly failed in 2017 to realize the potential of the many big-name veterans they pursued and lured to Foxborough.
Yet, if any team could overcome double-digit deficits, it would be these same Patriots, led by the greatest quarterback of all time in Tom Brady. They'd been in much deeper holes than the 12-point first-half disadvantage or 10-point second-half margin into which they fell.
To open the second half, Gronk finally came to life and to Brady's rescue with 116 yards on numerous big catches, including a 5-yard touchdown that drew New England to within three. Wide receiver Danny Amendola – Danny Playoffs, as he's come to be known – also delivered in crucial situations, leading all Patriots receivers with 152 yards on eight grabs.
However, each time New England came close to tying the score, or even when they finally did manage a 33-32 lead late in the 4th quarter, critical replay reviews of two Philly touchdown receptions – something that had gone the Patriots' way all season – finally went to the other team.
"Hats off to them, they beat us, they deserved to win," acknowledged a gracious Amendola. "We're all pretty disappointed. Congratulations to them."
Eagles backup QB Nick Foles needed to play a nearly flawless game for his team to win, and he did so. The one INT he threw wasn't at all his fault. But clinging to a 5-point lead, the Eagles gave Brady and the Patriots the ball with sufficient time to mount a comeback, as New England is so used to doing in these circumstances.
Philadelphia's defense, though, unlike New England's, made the play it needed when it strip-sacked TB12 and recovered the loose ball deep in Patriots territory.
"Wish we had scored more points," Brady lamented later. "The Eagles played a better game today. That's why they won. They deserve to be world champs."
Two plays – mirror images of one another – will probably come to define this championship game.
In the 1st half, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels dialed up a trick play designed to send Brady on a pass route down the sideline. Amendola had his QB open, but the ball sailed inches too far for Brady to get a handle on the ball. It fell incomplete.
Later, just before halftime, Eagles OC Frank Reich turned the tables on the Patriots, with Foles the recipient of an identical pass play. He held on in the Patriots' end zone to give his team an eventual 10-point lead going into the break.
Brady, at 40, threw for 505 yards. Remarkable achievement no matter how old you are. But this night belonged to the younger, far less experienced Foles, the game's Most Valuable Player.
"I am speechless," the devout Foles remarked in post-game comments to reporters. "All glory to God first and foremost. I wouldn't be here without Him. We have been wanting this [in Philadelphia] for a long time, and I am just blessed to be a part of it."
Perhaps it was too much to ask of Belichick, Brady, and Co. to pull off a second three-titles-in-four-years feat 13 years after they last did so. They gave us all quite a show, though, even in defeat.
The question now is, where do the Patriots go from here?
Belichick turns 66 in April, Brady 41 in August. McDaniels and fellow coordinator Matt Patricia have been linked to head coaching jobs elsewhere in the NFL, and numerous Patriots are headed to free agency next month. Even Gronk, when asked about retirement, told reporters he's going to "reflect on his future" in the coming days.
New England chose the slogan "Not Done" for its playoff run this year. It seemed fitting all throughout this past week in Minneapolis. Who knows if this great era in Patriots and NFL history has reached its end, but for the time being, at least, this season is all done.