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NFL Notes: Defense changes the script

Although it came in a losing effort, the Patriots defense stepped up against one of the most productive offenses in football on Sunday.

Jones-Rodgers-NFL Notes (1) copy

During the three-plus years since Tom Brady left New England, the Patriots have played a handful of games that ended in a similar fashion to the season-opening loss to Philadelphia: Fall behind against a good team, show some toughness in coming back but ultimately land tantalizingly short of a win.

There was a major difference between Sunday's 25-20 loss and the majority of defeats against quality competition in the post-Brady era, however. For starters, the Patriots outperformed their opponent for large chunks of the game. Over the past couple of seasons, there has been a fluky nature to the Patriots success when going against quality opponents. A significant windstorm in Buffalo or torrential rains against Baltimore or a rash of injuries to key personnel have all allowed New England to post upsets over the past three seasons.

And in some unexpectedly close losses, such as last Christmas Eve against the Bengals, an abundance of sloppiness from the favorite caused the score to tighten up down the stretch, only to see the Patriots fall short.

On Sunday against Philadelphia, there weren't a lot of fluky plays that allowed the Patriots to go toe-to-toe with the defending NFC champs. In fact, it was the Patriots sloppiness that decided the game as a pair of early turnovers led to 13 points for the Eagles and ultimately led to defeat.

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But for the bulk of the game the Patriots defense rose to the challenge, containing Jalen Hurts effectively while limiting the Eagles to four scoring drives – all resulting in field goals. That performance ran counter to many others against top-notch offenses – such as the aforementioned Bengals game when Cincy racked up 442 yards, 28 first downs and converted half of their 16 third-down attempts but turned the ball over three times (one resulting in a pick-6), missed two PATs and a field goal. So, Cincinnati wound up with only 22 points, making the defensive effort look better than it was. In reality it was more about missed opportunities for the Bengals than anything else.

That was not the case on Sunday. The Eagles had pockets of success mounting three drives that reached double digits in plays, but the Patriots controlled Hurts and his dual-threat ability by limiting him to only 37 rushing yards on nine attempts. It was a stark contrast to the effort against Baltimore's Lamar Jackson last season in which he ripped the Patriots for 37 points, and many of their outings against Josh Allen and the Bills.

In general, when the Patriots defense has faced a quality offense, the performance has suffered. That was the most encouraging aspect of the opener. As disappointing as it was to watch the offense fall short down the stretch, the defense was not simply hanging on for 60 minutes. Trailing 16-0 in the second quarter, the Patriots forced four straight three-and-outs as it waited for the offense to show signs of life.

And once that happened, the strong effort continued down to the final two possessions. Trailing by five with about five minutes to go, Jabrill Peppers forced a Hurts fumble to set up the offense with a short field. On the Eagles next series, the defense forced a four-and-out, this time rookie Christian Gonzalez coming up with the key play on a diving pass breakup.

Those are the situations in the past where Indy's Jonathan Taylor crushed their hopes with a long touchdown run to put the game away, or Allen threw a dagger with a long touchdown pass to Stefon Diggs to restore a two-score lead. In the opener the defense responded and gave the offense a pair of chances to finish off the comeback.

Ultimately the NFL is a results-oriented business and the bottom line left Bill Belichick's team at 0-1 when it woke up Monday morning. But rather than simply being outclassed from a talent perspective against a worthy opponent, the Patriots were every bit as capable as the high-flying Eagles.

As disappointing as the loss was, that was a welcome change to the post-Brady narrative.

Kicking himself

There was a lot of postgame talk about Belichick's decisions to pass up opportunities to kick late in the game, and the coach seemed to second-guess himself on at least one of those the following day. The main ones came with the Patriots trailing 22-14 and facing a pair of fourth downs early in the fourth quarter.

The first came on a fourth-and-8 form the Eagles 36 with 11:44 to go, and rather than attempt a 54-yard field goal Belichick went for it. Mac Jones threw behind Hunter Henry but the tight end made a tremendous one-handed catch to move the chains.

The drive stalled again, this time on fourth-and-3 from the 17 and Belichick again eschewed a 35-yard field goal to cut it to 5, but this time the Eagles rushed forced an incompletion.

"We made the best decision we could at the time," Belichick said after the game. "Didn't know we would be down there multiple times. Six minutes to go in the game. I don't know. If we had kicked it, I'm sure you would be asking why didn't we go for it."

Belichick is correct to be surprised about getting two more shots inside the red zone, but there was still 10 minutes to go at the time, not six as he said. So, there was more than enough time remaining if they chose to kick the field go to make it 22-17. If Belichick chose that route, the ensuing Eagles field goal drive simply would have restored the 8-point lead and not resulted in a two-score advantage, which then forced the Patriots into desperation mode.

Ultimately it didn't matter because the Patriots responded with a touchdown drive to get back within 5, and the Eagles followed up with a pair of turnovers (including one on downs) to allow the Patriots a chance to win. But the decision-making process made life more difficult, and that was on display on another series.

Following Hurts' fumble that gave the Patriots the ball at the Eagles 41, the offense went backward and faced a fourth-and-12 that quickly turned into a fourth-and-17 from the Philly 48. With 2:24 left and all three timeouts, the situation seemed to call for a punt that could have pinned the Eagles inside their 20. A three-and-out would have allowed the offense to get another shot with presumably good field position, but instead Belichick tried to get the 17 yards and turned it over on downs.

Again, the Eagles helped out when Nick Sirianni incredulously went for it on fourth-and-2, allowing Gonzalez to make a huge play at the two-minute warning to get the ball back. By not punting Belichick forfeited field position and forced his defense to defend four downs instead of three since it would be hard to imagine Sirianni rolling the dice on fourth-and-2 from inside his 20.

The following day Belichick begrudgingly admitted he might have done things differently.

"There wasn't a lot of field position to be gained," he said. "We could have punted it – probably should have punted on fourth-and-17 – but we're on their side of the 50. It's too long for a field goal."

It was another decision worth dissecting. Belichick's suggestion that there wasn't a lot of field position to be gained seems odd. Plus-50 punting can be an effective way to change field position, and even if Baringer punted into the end zone the Eagles would have had a tougher time moving the ball from deep in their end than around midfield, not to mention the fourth-down element that was introduced. And given the timeout situation, it was a curious call.

Old faces, new places

Three veteran quarterbacks – Jimmy Garoppolo, Derek Carr, Baker Mayfield – all won in their debuts with their new teams. Garoppolo and the Raiders went into Denver and came away with a tough 17-16 win, behind a pair of touchdowns from Jakobi Meyers. Garoppolo was efficient, completing 20 of 26 passes for 200 yards and a pair of touchdowns with an interception. Mayfield completed 21 of 34 passes for 173 yards and a pair of TDs in an upset road win over Minnesota.

The best performance likely came from Carr, who hit on 23 of 33 for 305 yards with a touchdown and a pick in a 16-15 win over Tennessee. Carr was clutch as well, completing a 41-yarder to Rashid Shaheed on third down on the final drive to run out the clock.

New York Jets quarterback Aaron Rodgers during Monday Night Football, September 11, 2023.
New York Jets quarterback Aaron Rodgers during Monday Night Football, September 11, 2023.

Major game-changer

Aaron Rodgers' torn Achilles sent shockwaves throughout the NFL but particularly within the AFC East. Credit to the Jets for finding a way to rally from a 13-3 deficit to win in overtime, but the utter despair that is likely permeating the organization that had such high hopes must be crippling. Robert Saleh won't have an easy job keeping his team focused, but the defense should be able to keep the Jets in enough games to keep them competitive. New York's Super Bowl hopes are likely gone, but the embattled Zach Wilson will get a chance to redeem himself by keeping his team relevant. We shall see …

Parting thought …

The Lions 21-20 upset of the Chiefs in the NFL Kickoff game featured some interesting late-game situational moments. The Chiefs faced a fourth-and-25 from the Kansas City 30 with 2:09 left and all three timeouts. Many felt Andy Reid should have punted, but one of my readers offered the following scenario that few had brought up.

"Hear me out … 4 & 25 KC should have stepped out of bounds on their own 9-yard line. DET couldn't milk the clock and would have to score a FG or TD. KC would be guaranteed to get the ball back in a one score game with a new set of downs and 1:30 or so left on the clock."

It would have been unconventional for sure, but one that likely would have had a better chance of succeeding than completing a pass on fourth-and-25. I love the outside-the-box thinking.

Power 5

1.      San Francisco (1-0) – The Niners turned in the most impressive performance of Week 1, going on the road and dismantling a Steelers team many believe is much improved.

2.      Kansas City (0-1) – Not much concern here for the Chiefs as long as Patrick Mahomes is healthy. He did more than enough to win the opener and help is on the way.

3.      Cincinnati (0-1) – Same can be said for Joe Burrow and the Bengals, who traditionally struggle in Cleveland. Burrow will bounce back as he knocks off the rust.

4.      Philadelphia (1-0) – The Eagles looked great in the first quarter, then got outplayed by the Patriots from there. We'll see if that's a trend moving forward.

5.      Buffalo (0-1) – Like KC and Cincy, I don't have a lot of concern over Buffalo's dismal start as the Jets often stymie Josh Allen at MetLife. But that was a pretty bad second half.

Team photographers David Silverman and Eric J. Adler present their favorite photos from the Patriots season opener against the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday, Sept. 10, 2023.

DISCLAIMER: The views and thoughts expressed in this article are those of the writer and don't necessarily reflect those of the organization. Read Full Disclaimer

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