FOXBOROUGH – Bill Belichick's Patriots don't do this.
They don't lose at home.
They don't lose back-to-back games.
They don't lose after Thanksgiving.
They don't give up big plays on specials teams. Certainly not multiple times in a game.
It just doesn't happen.
Except Sunday, against Philadelphia, it did. All of it.
This game was anti-climactic even before it kicked off. But then it got worse. Much worse.
New England had hoped to clinch the AFC East division crown with a win over Philly, plus a New York Jets loss, but the Jets mounted a come-from-behind victory in overtime versus the cross-town rival Giants earlier in the day, meaning the Patriots have to wait at least one more week to secure a playoff spot.
And they seemed to come out with very little energy against an Eagles team that was clearly inferior in all aspects. Even so, the Patriots put themselves in seemingly comfortable position with a 14-0 lead midway through the second quarter, but just like last week against Denver, a special teams mishap – a pair of them, actually – served as the catalyst for another uncharacteristic meltdown. Both botched plays led directly to Philly's tying the score with seconds to go in the first half.
Philly's big plays continued – as did New England's hangover from the Denver game – into the second half.
Yes, the Patriots were again without key players, this time tight end Rob Gronkowski and linebacker Dont'a Hightower, but they also got back wide receiver Danny Amendola and linebacker Jamie Collins.
They can't use injuries as an excuse for the way they played this week. Last week in Denver? Perhaps. But not this week.
The Patriots had the game under control and then they got cute. And that's when things unraveled. They tried a rugby-style onside kick with Nate Ebner, up 14-0, and when the Eagles snuffed it out, that seemed to give them the spark they'd heretofore lacked offensively. It also lit a fire under their special teams units and defense, both of which combined to put up 21 of Philly's 35 points.
New England didn't wake up until they found themselves down 21 points in the fourth quarter. But by then, it was too little too late. The only consolation the Patriots can take from this bizarre defeat is that they didn't completely fold when the odds of a comeback seemed at their most remote.
"This team's going to compete. We could be losing 40 to zero and we're still going to compete," maintained special teams co-captain Matthew Slater. "That's what makes you proud to be part of this football team: a lot of character guys that are going to go out and fight till the final whistle's blown. I'm proud of the way we fought to get back into the game. Just came up a little short at the end."
"It feels different around here, the way we lost the last two games. Especially the way we lost today," a dejected wide receiver Brandon LaFell told reporters. "It just felt like… a bad day at practice, when you sit down and talk about, 'If this goes wrong and this goes wrong, we won't have a chance to win the game.' It felt like a lot of stuff went wrong for us today."
"It's very disappointing to come out and perform the way we did tonight," Slater added. "But we're not going to point fingers. We have a lot of confidence in that [special teams] group. Hopefully, we can start playing like ourselves here soon."
They'd better. Because not only did the Patriots not clinch the AFC East, and the automatic playoff berth that distinction affords, they also dropped out of the top spot in the AFC playoff picture. New England is now tied, record-wise with both Cincinnati and Denver, but the Patriots suddenly plummet from the No. 1 seed to the No. 3.
With a month to go in the regular season, there's still time to regain either the 1 or 2, and the all-important playoff bye week, but they'll have to do so by playing much better without all their components and hoping that Cincy and Denver stumble.
Not the most desirable position to be in as the final quarter of the regular season begins.