When the New England Patriots needed to play their best football of the year, they failed to do so and as a result had to watch the Philadelphia Eagles win Super Bowl 52 with a score of 41-33. While the Eagles, of course, played a great game from start to finish, New England was inconsistent and struggled especially on defense and in the situational football department.
With all that in mind, here are – without the benefit of a film review – 12 Patriots players or units who stood out yesterday, for worse or for a little better than that.
Loser: The coaching staff
After a rocky start to the season, New England's coaching staff did a tremendous job to overcome injuries and inconsistencies in all three phases of the game. In the biggest game of the year, however, it failed to do just that and made multiple head-scratching decisions – the most prominent of which being the benching of Malcolm Butler. The Patriots simply appeared to overthink the game at times and if not for the brilliance of Tom Brady, this game could have gotten out of hand a lot sooner.
Semi-winner: QB Tom Brady
Had the Patriots defeated the Eagles, Tom Brady would have won MVP after delivering another record-breaking performance: Completing 28 of 48 passes, Brady threw for an all-time best 505 yards as well as three touchdowns. The quarterback rallied the team back from a 10-point halftime deficit to take a one-point lead midway through the fourth quarter. Unfortunately, after the defense gave up a time-consuming touchdown drive, Brady was unable bring his team back once more.
Semi-winner: The offensive line
Philadelphia entered the game with one of the best pass rushing and run stopping units in the NFL but the Patriots' offensive line held its ground. While Brady was under pressure multiple times and the only sack of the day came at the most inopportune time, the blocking up front played a big part in New England's offense moving the football well. Dante Scarnecchia's unit paved the way for 113 rushing yards on 22 carries and 500 passing yards. It was not perfect, but it got the job done most of the time.
Semi-winner: CB Stephon Gilmore
One of the questionable coaching decisions of the game was the usage of number one cornerback Stephon Gilmore. The high-priced free agency acquisition started the game in coverage of Torrey Smith. After fellow cornerback Eric Rowe was frequently beaten by Alshon Jeffery, though, Gilmore and Rowe switched responsibilities at halftime. From that point forward, Jeffery was a virtual no-factor as Gilmore played a tremendous game against him. One has to wonder how it would have looked like had he been on him from the first snap onwards.
Loser: The entire non-Gilmore defense
While Gilmore played a tremendous game, the rest of the defense did not – and that is putting it mildly: The Patriots defense had an all-time bad performance for a Bill Belichick coached team. The unit gave up 41 points (second-most in the Belichick era), 4.1 points per drive (second-most) as well as 538 yards (most). Furthermore it struggled with finishing tackles and getting stops when they were needed. All in all, a terrible showing – one not worthy of a championship.
Loser: CB Malcolm Butler
While Malcolm Butler's absence is not the lone reason for New England's defensive struggles, it would be foolish to believe that the unit would not have been better off with him in the lineup – at least in certain situations. Alas, Butler did not play even a single defensive snap for reasons we will likely never know. His tenure in New England will therefore find an inglorious end on the same stage that made him a star three years ago.
Semi-winner: WR Danny Amendola
When the lights are brightest, Danny Amendola plays his best football – yesterday was no different. Despite the Patriots' loss, the veteran wide out delivered another spectacular performance and finished with a team-high 152 receiving yards on eight catches. As usual, Amendola rose to the occasion in the clutch as five of his receptions came on either third or fourth down. Over the course of the year and again in the Super Bowl, the impending free agent showed that he should be high on New England's priority list.
Loser: The 3rd and 4th down defense
As noted above, the Patriots' defense had a bad game. The worst aspect of its performance was arguably the unit's inability to get off the field in high-pressure situations. Overall, New England found itself in third or fourth downs 18 times and saw the Eagles gain a new set of downs on 12 of those occasions. The most untimely conversions arguably came on the seven-minute drive that gave Philadelphia the lead with a little over two minutes left in the game: The team converted two third downs and a fourth down en route to the go-ahead touchdown.
Semi-winner: TE Rob Gronkowski
As has been the case in the game against the Pittsburgh Steelers earlier this season, the Patriots turned to Rob Gronkowski when they needed to kickstart their offense. After the NFL's best tight end was held in check in the first quarter – catching only oe pass for nine yards –, he exploded in the second to finish the game with nine catches for 116 yards and two touchdowns. At times, Gronkowski was simply unstoppable.
Loser: WR Brandin Cooks
Prior to this season, Brandin Cooks had never appeared in a playoff game. In his first year in New England, he promptly helped the team reach the Super Bowl – but his night ended after only 17 minutes of game time. On his first catch of the day, a 23-yard completion, the wide receiver was hit from behind and suffered a head injury. He was quickly declared out. Cooks, especially considering how well the Patriots started to move the football later on in the game, could have had a big performance in his first title game. Unfortunately for him, though it ended in the locker room.
Loser: The field goal operation
Super Bowl 52 was ultimately decided by eight points – a score that could have been closer had the Patriots just been able to score in the kicking game in the first half. It all started with a botched field goal attempt early in the second quarter. After a bad snap by Joe Cardona, holder Ryan Allen and kicker Stephen Gostkowski were forced out of their rhythm and the kick hit the upright. Later in the quarter, Gostkowski shanked another kick; an extra point that would have brought the Patriots within three points.
Semi-winner: WR Chris Hogan
After dealing with injuries for most of the season's second half, wide receiver Chris Hogan had a big statistical day against the Eagles. The second-year Patriot played 93% of offensive snaps – leading all wide receivers – and caught six passes for 128 yards and a touchdown. Hogan looked like his typical self for the first time since earlier in the season and helped New England's offense move the football on a very good defense.
All in all, there are no winners from yesterday's game except those that don the Eagles' green. The Patriots, playing a sloppy game on defense and making head-scratching decisions at times, were simply not good enough yesterday to defeat the NFC champions. They have seven months to figure things out before the quest to regain the title starts.