FOXBORO, MA. — Musings, observations and the occasional insight as we digest the not-so-important Super Bowl rematch the Eagles and Patriots waged Thursday night at Gillette Stadium....
* I know, right, where was this New England defense last February? We hold these truths to be self-evident in light of the Patriots’ thorough 37-20 conquest of Philadelphia in the second preseason tilt of the summer:
* Adrian Clayborn is going to really help this Patriots’ defense that ended last season on such a sour note. The former Bucs and Falcons defensive end wreaked more than his share of havoc against the Eagles, highlighted of course by that strip sack of Nick Foles that teammate Ja’Whaun Bentley turned into a 54-yard second-quarter touchdown return. Clayborn abused Eagles left tackle Halapoulivaati Vaitai at times Thursday night, and Vaitai was good enough to start the Super Bowl for Philadelphia.
I spoke with Falcons head coach Dan Quinn this week for an upcoming guest appearance on the Cover 2 podcast and he couldn’t say enough nice things about Clayborn and his professionalism. Quinn predicted that Patriots fans will love Clayborn, and I think they already do.
* But let’s not overlook Bentley and the preseason he’s having. The rookie Mike linebacker from Purdue adds some much needed speed and athleticism to New England’s defense, and he has to be the team’s rookie of the summer so far. Bentley just ran away from the chasing Eagles on his 54-yard scoop and score, leaving them to read his license plate like the luxury car he’s a namesake of.
* Not only did Clayborn’s big play prove to be the last snap of action for Eagles starting quarterback and Super Bowl MVP Nick Foles, who left the game with a right shoulder strain, the touchdown it produced put the Patriots up 17-0 early in the second quarter and essentially decided this outcome.
Eagles’ third-team quarterback Nate Sudfeld against Atlanta’s Matt Ryan in the highly-anticipated Sept. 6 Thursday night season-opener anyone? Foles has time to recover before then, of course, but with Carson Wentz still rehabbing his December knee surgery, wouldn’t it be a kick in the pants if Philadelphia was down to QB 3 in Week 1? Injuries to a quarterback’s throwing shoulder is nothing to take lightly. They can linger. Just ask Andrew Luck.
I hear Sam Bradford could be available in a late preseason trade with Arizona if the Eagles get desperate for a starting passer. I’m kidding. I think. Make that I hope.
* Actually Sudfeld showed me a little something against the Patriots, connecting fairly often on some nice intermediate to longer range routes. His third-quarter 17-yard touchdown pass to tight end Richard Rodgers was a feathered thing of beauty. Sudfeld finished 22 of 39 for 312 yards, with three touchdown passes and one interception.
The kid can play a little bit and has a well-developed touch, and it wouldn’t surprise me to see his name mentioned as a potential backup or even starting option in the future.
* I’m not giving the theory that a highly-motivated Patriots defense wanted revenge for the Super Bowl debacle much credence, but still, New England made life miserable for Foles. The Patriots first-team defense, such as it was, played with much more intensity and execution than it did last week against Washington, and Foles was routinely hounded, winding up just 3 of 9 for 44 yards with three sacks.
Patriots fans had to be wondering if it really was the same Foles who sliced and diced up Matt Patricia’s defense in Minneapolis? And that was with veteran inside linebacker Dont’a Hightower not playing Thursday night, apparently getting a planned night off as a healthy scratch.
The Eagles punted three times in the first quarter, which was two more punts than Philadelphia needed in the entire Super Bowl LII. I liked almost everything I saw of new unit led by defacto Patriots defensive coordinator (without the title) Brian Flores. He seemed to be successfully bringing linebackers and safeties on blitzes and getting steady pressure from both defensive end slots.
In the first half, Philadelphia totaled just 120 yards on 38 offensive snaps, punting five times and going just 2-of-8 on third down. That’ll work. Even if the Eagles rested plenty of offensive starters.
* But about that Patriots secondary. There was more solid work from cornerback Stephon Gilmore, who continues to stand out in camp and in these exhibition games. But veteran Jason McCourty — who might be on the bubble at cornerback — was schooled on the Eagles’ first touchdown, a 4-yard pass from Sudfeld to Shelton Gibson. McCourty got completely fooled in coverage and looked like a rookie on the play.
Patriots rookie Keion Crossen had a brutal showing in the first half, picking up a pair of defensive pass interference penalties on the Eagles’ initial touchdown drive. Crossen is a seventh-rounder from Western Carolina who faces an uphill climb to make the final roster, and he did himself no favors against with his lost-in-space showing against the defending Super Bowl champion Eagles.
* Raise your hand if you had Tom Brady playing the entire first half for the Patriots, all but a final-snap kneel-down by Brian Hoyer? Yes, you in the back with the hoodie, we see that hand.
Brady led six possessions and the Patriots scored two touchdowns and two field goals while he was in control, putting up 20 of New England’s 27 first-half points. The Patriots led 27-7 at the break, and after sitting out all of last week’s win against Washington, TB12 looked regular-season sharp to me, completing 19 of 26 passes for 172 yards, with touchdown passes to Chris Hogan (4 yards) and James White (20 yards).
Brady found seven different receivers, led by White’s six grabs for 61 yards. With security blanket Julian Edelman set to miss the first four games of the regular season due to his league-issued PED suspension, look for White and Hogan to get tons of targets in the season’s first month. Hogan caught five passes from Brady for 25 yards in the first half.
As for Eric Decker, the newly signed veteran receiver was largely invisible against the Eagles. He was targeted twice but had no catches, and the Patriots aren’t the type to wait around too long for him to figure things out.
* The most exciting play of the game for New England’s offense with Brady on the field? That’s easy. It was the 23-yard connection with new free-agent receiver Cordarrelle Patterson down the left sideline in the second quarter. Patterson would have gone a whole lot further, but he apparently grazed a toe out of bounds and the play was whistled dead.
Patterson in the third quarter caught an 11-yard touchdown pass from backup quarterback Brian Hoyer, but it was that burst of game-changing speed that Patterson flashed that has some in New England fantasizing about the second coming of Randy Moss.
Steady, Pats people. Patterson has the Vikings and Raiders in his past like Moss did when he hit Foxboro, but he’s never proven to be a reliable pass-catcher in the NFL. That’s why the Vikings and Raiders eventually used him as an elite kickoff returner, never fully utilizing that tantalizing speed. But if the Patriots can unlock Patterson’s receiving potential and routinely find ways to get him the ball, look out, NFL.
* Positive results or not, every preseason game is a mixed bag of sorts, and the Eagles weren’t the only ones to lose a potentially pivotal player in the season’s early going. New England first-round pick Isaiah Wynn had to ride a cart from the sideline examination tent to the locker room after suffering a left ankle injury in the second quarter.
Wynn had entered the game at right tackle in the first quarter and was playing fairly well in his Patriots debut, at times handling the pass rushes of Eagles defensive end Chris Long without any apparent breakdowns. How much of a setback it’ll be for Wynn remains to be seen.
* Not that Thursday night truly added a chapter, but I’m enjoying the burgeoning Boston-Philadelphia sports rivalry. You had the Eagles’ Super Bowl upset of the Patriots, followed by the Celtics and Sixers renewing hostilities in the playoffs last spring, and the Red Sox and Phillies — both first-place clubs in the East — splitting four tense and mostly well-played games in the span of the past month.
And we know the Bruins and Flyers have never been able to stomach the sight of each other.
* That said, the Eagles and their fans do seem to have something of an obsession about the Patriots. You know all about Philadelphia offensive tackle Lane Johnson and his many publicly-shared beefs with the way New England runs its program.
But all three of the following examples also lend credence to the perception that the Birds and their fans love to troll the Patriots in the post-Super Bowl months.
— There was a pro-Eagles billboard placed along Route 1 near Gillette Stadium this week, and reportedly it was paid for by Gina Lewis, an Eagles fan who wanted to drive home Philadelphia’s 41-33 win in the Super Bowl.
— In the pre-game Thursday night, a plane towing a banner flew over or near Gillette, with the sign reading “41-33 PHILLY PHILLY S.B. LII.’’ Again, it was reportedly arranged and purchased by a gloating Eagles fan from Bucks County, Pa., at the cost of $1,000.
— Lastly, the Eagles official Twitter account had some fun at the Patriots’ expense in the pre-game hours as well. The Eagles tweeted a picture from their locker room showing the lockers of safety Jeremy Reaves and cornerback De’Vante Bausby. Reaves wears No. 41 and Bausby is No. 33.
Get it? 41 and 33. The magic numbers of every Eagles fan everywhere.