How well do you deal with adversity?
Few teams in the NFL, if any, are better at it than Bill Belichick's Patriots.
A victory over a slightly weaker AFC East opponent – at Gillette Stadium, no less? Sure, we've come to expect that of the Patriots during Belichick's two decades as head coach of the Patriots. So, Week 1's final result wasn't at all surprising or unreasonable to expect, even with a brand new quarterback starting under center, barely two-and-a-half months after he joined the club.
But a win over a quality Seahawks squad – in Seattle, even? Anything but certain. New England is just 4-3 all-time in the Pacific Northwest.
This go-round, However, Seattle would be without its vaunted 12th Man, the collective sobriquet for the tens of thousands of fans who normally fill CenturyLink Field and give it its well-deserved reputation as one of the loudest venues in the NFL. A decided advantage under normal circumstances, for sure, yet many of the Seahawks' most notable names and faces remain the same from the most recent meeting between these two organizations four years ago in Foxborough, when the Seahawks prevailed with a hard-fought effort.
If the Patriots were to return the favor here in 2020 Week 2, would they be able to do so in the same manner in which they dispatched the Dolphins a week ago – that is, predominantly on the ground? Or would offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels have to get more creative with his play-calling selection?
Defensively, would New England's secondary be able to limit Seattle's dynamic quarterback, Russell Wilson, in a way the Atlanta Falcons couldn't last week? And could the Patriots' front contain Wilson to the pocket and not allow him to scamper for yardage?
These were the most relevant questions entering this game… until we learned about James White's situation. And that narrowed the questions down to one.
How well do you deal with adversity… that you never saw coming?
Shortly before kickoff, the Patriots received stunning news that White's parents were involved in a serious car crash. He'd lost his father, while his mother clung to life in a Florida hospital. This, just days after Belichick's 98-year-old mother died, causing him to postpone a regularly scheduled Q&A session with reporters. The Patriots played this Sunday night with heavy hearts.
"A lot of emotions going into the game... It's just a tough deal," running back Rex Burkhead remarked moments after the final whistle. "We tried to go out there and play to the best of our abilities the best we could. We fought our tails off."
Understandably, the team deactivated White for the Seattle game, but were it not for this devastating turn of events, he would certainly have been an integral part of the game plan. New England was forced to adjust – how significantly is unknowable – to the absence of White.
They would do so, though, by starting out with a 7-0 lead, thanks to a pick-six of Wilson by safety and co-captain Devin McCourty, who easily returned the interception 43 yards untouched for a touchdown. McCourty immediately sought out the first TV camera he could find to relay a message to White. "Two-eight, we love you!" he exclaimed, referencing White's jersey number.
"Just devastating. It's been a rough year, man," McCourty acknowledged to reporters on a video conference afterward. "Our hearts are heavy for James. It's just tough. There are no words, nothing you can do in that situation. Just wanted to go out there and play our hearts out for him."
On the field, Seattle faced a different type of adversity in its defensive backfield. Early on, starting free safety Quandre Diggs leveled Patriots receiver N'Keal Harry with a helmet-to-helmet hit that earned Diggs an immediate disqualification from the game. Not long after, Diggs' backup, Marquise Blair, suffered a knee injury making a tackle and had to be escorted to the locker room.
Seattle's secondary, which was torched by Atlanta a week ago to the tune of 450 yards, suddenly found itself down to its third free safety. QB Cam Newton tried to test that potential vulnerability by throwing more – much more, and more accurately – than he did in the opener versus Miami. McDaniels also reached into the playbook to diversify his play-calling.
Still, for the first half of the night, the narrative on both sides looked similar to Week 1. Wilson was nearly perfect passing and virtually unguardable when scrambling. He connected on numerous deep throws and tossed five TDs to five different receivers.
"I mean, he just throws a good ball," McCourty said of Wilson. "You watch those plays, it's not bad coverage. We've got guys all over the receiver. He really does a good job of putting the ball really where only the receiver can catch it."
Meanwhile, by intermission, Newton had only attempted 11 passes, connecting on seven for 85 yards. The 14-14 score seemed to typify just how even the matchup was to that point. In the second half, Seattle started pulling away, taking leads of 11 and 12 points on two separate occasions, the latter coming with less than five minutes to play.
Astonishingly, New England continued to make plays, too – mostly through the air, which was a complete departure from last week's game plan. What's more, as liberally as Wilson was throwing the ball all night, Newton quietly surpassed him on the stat sheet, finishing just shy of 400 yards passing on 30 completions. Newton also scampered into the end zone for a pair of 1-yard touchdowns.
It seemed altogether logical, therefore, that with three seconds to go and the ball on the Seattle 1-yard line, the Patriots would call for Newton to keep the ball and try to power his way into the end zone for a third time.
It wasn't to be. Like last week in Atlanta, Seattle's best defender by far was safety Jamal Adams. He led all tacklers in the game with 10 total takedowns (six solo), often disrupted the Patriots' offense at critical junctures throughout the night, and was among the Seahawks who stuffed Newton short of the goal line as time expired.
"It was a great play by them," Newton confessed later to reporters. "That was a play we'd run a couple time. Maybe we went to the well too many times, but at the end of the day, we still felt confident about it… I just got to be better. We put ourselves in position to win. When you do that, you've got to finish."
Losses – on the field and off – can be painful to absorb, as the Patriots' most recent ones this week showed. Yet, the players took consolation in the way they conducted themselves during the toughest of moments.
"I'm proud of the way the guys competed here," Belichick asserted in post-game comments to the media. "We just didn't quite have enough."
"Just the fight [we showed]," McCourty added. "We've got a group of guys that continue to fight. We talked about it all week, [that] this game would come down to the last couple of plays. It did. We had to fight to keep the lead, fight to stay in it. They've got a good football team.
"It's kind of crazy, every time we play these guys it comes down to one play or two plays in the game. We were prepared for it, we just didn't execute or finish the way we want to. We made some plays in the game. They just made more. When you play good football teams, that's what it comes down to."
"All in all, as a team, we fought," Newton concluded. "We knew what type of game it was going to be. It's still a hostile environment with them being comfortable in their home stadium, but through it all, you've just got to battle adversity… that double-digit lead in the fourth quarter, we had our opportunities [to overcome it].
"It was something to build on, most definitely. But I feel as if, put in that situation, I've got to be better. It's that simple."
The New England Patriots take on the Seattle Seahawks in a regular season game at CenturyLink Field on Sunday, September 20, 2020.