Three Super Bowl championships in four years, for the second time during the dominant era of Bill Belichick and Tom Brady. Six Super Bowl championships in franchise history.
The first trifecta for the Patriots came together like bacon and eggs. A 20-17 win over the Rams behind a first-year quarterback and a Cinderella team, a thrilling 32-29 shootout win over the Panthers for a team that was making its ascension into the realms of football greatness, and then a 24-21 win over the Eagles to establish themselves as the best team of the decade.
The following decade, the trifecta nearly happened again. 28-24 over Seattle, 34-28 over Atlanta … and then came Philadelphia one more time. And the Patriots were so close. In one of the most remarkable Super Bowls ever played, the Patriots had victory within their grasps – even though they were basically outplayed by the Eagles from start to finish. The Pats looked completely out of sorts, especially on defense (trying to recall another game in which New England’s defense was as much of a no-show as it was in Super Bowl 52, but I’m struggling). And yet, they were never out of the game.
Even when they botched an easy field goal in the first half … even when Brandin Cooks was knocked out of the game and most likely concussed after a vicious hit … even when they tried a Brady-to-Amendola-to-Brady flea flicker that failed miserably … the Patriots were never out of the game. The Eagles, and their emerge-out-of-nowhere superhero quarterback Nick Foles, continued to deliver blow after blow, but the Patriots never actually let the game get away from them.
Sitting on my couch, watching play after play, wearing my navy blue Gronkowski jersey, I never actually thought the Patriots would lose. I had been heavily confident about this game all week. Three titles in four years for the second time? It was too poetic. Belichick and Brady were too good to not snatch up this piece of history that was right in front of them. It was just a waiting game, and eventually, the Patriots would recover, become themselves again, and make the right plays to win the game.
And then, with just under 10 minutes remaining, the Patriots FINALLY grabbed the lead. Brady hit Gronkowski for a four-yard touchdown pass, which put New England in front 33-32 and seemed to, temporarily, redeem all of the horrible football the Patriots had been playing to that point. I may have let out a slight smile, although I can’t quite remember. I was still trying to figure out how to cling to a one-point lead for nine more minutes when your defensive players had already begun their offseason.
It was too similar to both Super Bowl losses to the Giants. The Pats were leading in the fourth quarter, and they just needed their defense to hold on. They were nine minutes away from title number six. Just a mere nine minutes. But once again, too much was being asked of the defense. And we knew it too. After all, we had been watching that defense constantly surrender points to the Eagles all night, one drive after another. And now we wanted them to cling to a one-point lead for nine minutes? We knew better.
They did come close though. They forced Philadelphia to fourth down, but rather than punt it away on fourth-and-one, Eagles coach Doug Pederson chose to go for it to keep the drive alive. And it worked out, to nobody’s surprise, when Foles completed a short pass to Zach Ertz for a first down. Pederson had been outcoaching Belichick, who inexplicably left Malcolm Butler on the sideline all game, endlessly all night. This was just one of many decisions in which it heavily showed who was having the better night. Shortly after, Foles found Ertz again for an 11-yard touchdown. After the two-point attempt failed (I was up in arms thanking the heavens), it was 38-33 Eagles with 2:21 remaining.
Sure, the New England defense had surrendered the lead in the fourth quarter just as I expected. But 2:21 for Tom Brady to win the game, especially when he had the two-minute warning and a timeout in his pocket? I liked those chances. These were the moments in which he thrived. If he was Clark Kent, this would be when he would run into the phone booth and emerge wearing the shiny red and blue superhero suit. He’s Tom F-ing Brady. We expected him to win this game. Everyone expected him to win this game.
So when the football was almost instantly knocked out of his hand and recovered by Philadelphia, there were really no words. I think I mouthed “oh my god” and that was about it. I couldn’t even muster anything else. The greatest quarterback in history had over two minutes to lead a game-winning touchdown drive, but this time, he didn’t have it in him. Once again, the Eagles showed why they were the better team on Feb. 4, 2018.
Philly ate up another minute off the clock and tacked on another field goal, leaving the Patriots with just over 60 seconds and no timeouts to go all the way down the field, score a touchdown and convert a two-point attempt. Even though he finished the game with over 500 passing yards and three touchdowns, Brady had no more miracles left in him. The final heave to the end zone missed Gronkowski, much like it did in Super Bowl 46 against the Giants, as the clocked wound down to 0:00. Game over. For the first time in their franchise history, the Eagles were world champions.
I have no excuses to make. The better team won Super Bowl 52. Foles played at an MVP-caliber level, not just against the Patriots, but against every team he played against in the 2017 playoffs. When Carson Wentz blew out his knee in Los Angeles back in early December, Foles was given a freak-luck opportunity to make history, and he seized it. Carpe diem. He embraced the opportunity, played the best football of his life, and was rewarded with a championship ring and a Super Bowl MVP award. He even became the first quarterback ever to throw a touchdown pass and catch a touchdown pass in the Super Bowl. It’s hard not to be happy for the guy, even though he’ll soon be dealt off to another team when Wentz is healthy enough to retake his throne.
So here’s to the Philadelphia Eagles and their fans. Enjoy the moment, enjoy the parade, and enjoy the thrill of being world champions. Even in defeat, it’s not like Patriots fans have much to complain about. We won two of the last three Super Bowls. We played in the AFC Championship Game for the seventh straight year. We’ve appeared in eight Super Bowls in the last 17 seasons, winning five of them. We’ve gotten to root for the greatest quarterback and greatest coach in history. And as always, come next season, the Patriots will be right back where they always are -- at the top of the league, looking to make another run at another title. And on top of ALL of that, the Celtics, Red Sox and Bruins have all won titles in the last decade, and the Celtics might be coming awfully close to another one in just a few months. Sure, I’m disappointed, but I’m not devastated.
But even with all of that said, I won’t forget how close the Patriots came to winning their third title in four years. I won’t forget that they only needed to stop the Eagles on fourth-and-one to complete their second trifecta. And above all else, I won’t forget seeing that football slip out of Brady’s right hand.
I don’t think I’ll ever be able to unsee that.