It was a perfect September setting at Gillette Stadium on Sunday for Patriot football: a misty overcast, intense humidity, and Tom Brady in a Patriot jersey. The start of this game could’ve been a catalyst for the game being completely overshadowed by the return of the GOAT to New England, but an offensive resurgence and a stout and timely defensive performance allowed for quite a contest in the end.
On Sunday afternoon, the New England Patriots (0-1) played host to the Philadelphia Eagles (1-0) in a crushing 25-20 defeat for their season opener. Tom Brady was there to witness as he made his first appearance at Gillette Stadium since 2021 when he came as a member of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Early turnovers and a lack of discipline played heavily in the demise of the Patriots.
The Eagles started the day with a long 14-play, seven-minute drive, which heavily featured Philadelphia’s running back, Kenneth Gainwell. The second play from scrimmage would set the tone for the Patriot’s lack of discipline. A fumbled snap by Jalen Hurts, a potential loss of 4 yards, was voided by a Patriots offside infraction. The Eagles were getting what they wanted in the run game, from Gainwell or even Hurts calling his number to convert a crucial 3rd and 11. The Patriots pass rush was able to consistently get to Hurts on the rare occasion of a pass play, which they did on a 3rd and Goal stand to force a field goal attempt on the initial drive.
The Patriots’ offense quickly came out strong on their first drive. We were familiarized with an early carry to Rhamondre Stevenson, looking to go for another 1,000 yards rushing. Henry came up with a tough catch in traffic, looking to continue to be Mac Jones’ guy in the receiving game. We were introduced to Ezekiel Elliot, the new running back signed just as the preseason had gotten underway, who came up with a nice 11-yard run. This drive looking with such promise was stunted immediately when Mac Jones attempted to find Kendrick Bourne on a comeback route where he overthrew him, tipped off Bourne’s fingers, and fell right into the waiting arms of one Darius Slay of the Philadelphia Eagles who was able to weave his way through Patriots tacklers 70 yards to the house.
The next Patriots drive went as bad as it could get as Elliot went out to receive a screen pass from Jones, which was errantly thrown away from Elliot’s body, forcing him to extend out to make the catch allowing defenders to close in on him and inevitably force a fumble. Elliot, who hadn’t fumbled since 2021, coughed the ball up giving the Eagles great field position. The Patriots’ defense couldn’t force a stop with the short field and the Patriots quickly found themselves in a 16-0 hole just 12 minutes into the game.
The next 6 drives for either team were three and outs. The Patriots’ defense had been playing spectacularly with their pressure to the quarterback as well as their creatively designed coverages, trying to give the offense a chance to get back in this game. Poor throws from Mac and untimely drops from receivers wouldn’t cut it.
This was the case until the Patriots’ sixth drive of the game where O’Brien allowed Mac to unleash his arm for some big passing plays. Jones was able to find new faces Mike Gesicki, (signed from the Dolphins), Juju Smith-Schuster (signed from the Chiefs), and Demario Douglas (2023 sixth-round pick out of Liberty) for big gains on this important drive. The Pats were able to finish off the almost 5-minute, 71-yard drive with Mac Jones perfectly lofting a ball over the secondary to find Hunter Henry in the end zone.
The Patriots’ defense was able to force their fourth straight three and out by the Eagles and all the momentum had suddenly shifted the Patriots way. Jones was able to find Henry on two big passing plays and even had a nice scamper for a few yards of his own. He was able to find Kendrick Bourne in the middle of the endzone for a 19-yard strike after a simple outside inside route to create space from his defender. The Patriots who had quickly found themselves in a 16-0 whole early had brought the scoreline back to 16-14, carrying all the momentum into halftime, where the crowd would be even more energized by the honoring of Tom Brady.
We were able to hear some great words from Robert Kraft, the team owner, about Tom’s time here in New England. Kraft would drop the nugget that Brady would be bypassing the waiting period for the Patriot’s Hall of Fame and would be inducted with a special ceremony next summer on 6/12/24. The 6 represents the number of championships he won here and the 12 for the number he donned while doing it.
Despite all this momentum, the Pats were stunned to a quick three and out. The Eagles took that defensive stop in stride as Hurts started to get into a passing groove, putting big plays together to get to the New England 31. This Patriots’ defense was then let off the hook after an offensive holding penalty pushed the Eagles back. Two incompletions and a small running gain forced a 56-yard field goal attempt for Jake Elliot, but he has been game for kicks like that his whole career as he easily knocked it through to extend the Philadelphia lead 19-14 in attempts to gain control back.
The next New England drive would have another strong start. Big carries by Elliot. Another big gain to Bourne who had settled in at this point as a go-to guy for Mac Jones. Unfortunately, the penalties would pile up here as two straight instances of offensive holding would push the Patriots into tough decision territory for a field goal or kick. That decision would get a lot easier when Demario Douglas got a reception from the PHI 39 on 3rd and 21 and went backward 4 words surely putting the Pats out of field goal range.
The Eagles were able to go on another long drive, 11 plays for 50 yards in between the third and fourth quarters. Jalen Hurts would continuously find Devonta Smith on this drive for big yardage plays but the New England defense would still be able to force another field goal attempt pushing the Philadelphia lead to 22-14 with 13 minutes to go in the fourth quarter.
With the game in desperate need of chunk yardage, O’Brien started dialing up more passing plays for Mac and he was game as they were able to move the ball downfield. Faced with a 4th and 8 from the PHI 36, they elected to go for it as Mac was able to find old reliable in Hunter Henry for a big gain to convert the down. The Patriots would again be faced with a 4th down, this time inside the 20. They elected to attempt it rather than take the points and ended up not converting. This was disappointing not to see points taken away from this long grueling, drive.
This next Philadelphia drive was very up and down for rookie first-round cornerback Christian Gonzalez. AJ Brown was able to eat him alive for a lot of chunk yardage. Gonzalez was able to make two good plays while the Eagles were in Patriots territory, coming up with a sack off a cornerback blitz and a huge tackle of AJ Brown on a third down to force another field goal attempt, which was made to extend the Eagles lead to 25-14.
The Patriots needed two scores and it needed to happen quickly. Getting a flowing, efficient, late-game offense was a struggle last year but was not the case this game. Rhamondre was able to start the drive with huge yardage on a screen pass from Jones to completely flip the field with just five minutes remaining. Jones could then find Demario Douglas for a big gain across the middle. Rhamondre would then take the Patriots just to the 10 after Jones escaped the Eagles’ pressure by stepping up and finding him, where Rhamondre spun like a top to evade defenders. Jones could then strike another touchdown pass to Kendrick Bourne as Bourne ran the same route on his earlier touchdown on the opposite side of the field. As a 25-20 game, the Pats had to go for 2 to make it a field goal difference. Mac Jones was able to scramble around and find himself in, except another offensive line gaff prevented the conversion for an offensive holding. The retry from 12 yards out now was easily defended with a poor throw from Mac not even reaching the end zone, straight into an Eagles defender’s hands.
With the Patriots needing a quick stop and the ball back with only 3 minutes remaining, Jalen Hurts presented them with a gift. On the first play of the possession, Hurts called his own number and Jabrill Peppers landed a monster hit to pop the ball loose and allow Marcus Jones to pick it up and claim possession for the Patriots.
Alas, despite being gifted plus field position, the Patriots would not convert a first down after Mac Jones took his first sack of the game and a crucial delay of game penalty. The Patriots opted to go for a 4th and 17 at midfield instead of punting away with 3 timeouts which became an intriguing game decision. Jones would throw the ball short of the sticks and Hunter Henry would drop the pass to not give them a chance.
The Eagles would get the ball looking to put the game away with a first down all but sealing the win. However, combined rushes from Gainwell and Hurts couldn’t get it done. As the Eagles attempted a 4th down attempted, Hurts was stuffed again giving the Patriots ample time to get into the end zone to take the lead.
Jones was able to get plenty of time to look through his options as he found big plays to Kendrick Bourne and Mike Geisicki to get in the red zone. But alas, the red zone troubles of last year came back to haunt us. An incomplete pass, a now-second sack of Mac Jones, a dump pass for little yardage, and another pass to Kayshon Boutte that begs to ask if he knows he needs to get 2 feet down in bounds. The Eagles kneel it out, but an impressive outing by the Patriots that we know could’ve gone begging for more.
Offense Prevails, Despite Slow Start
Patriots fans had been clamoring for Kendrick Bourne to be given more involvement in the offense all last season and new offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien was willing to oblige. Bourne would come away with six receptions for 64 yards on 11 targets, four more targets than the next Patriot. Mac Jones took a bit to truly get into the game as two very poorly placed balls were very costly to the result. Jones did set a personal record for pass attempts in. a game as well as have his fourth 300-yard passing game. One hopes that the addition of Bill O’Brien will turn this offense around. The offensive line showed well for how rotated it was against a top defensive front with the Eagles. Keeping Mac untouched for 50 minutes was impressive. Of course, their fault lies in the untimeliness of their few errors. The holding penalties were costly as well as when the floodgates opened to put pressure on Mac Jones. All offensive players had an impact except rookie sixth-round pick Kayshon Boutte, with some costly missed catches. The two tight-end system with Henry and Geisicki looks to be promising, with both helping out in the passing and running game.
Defense Came to Play
The Patriots Defense performed very well, refusing to give up many big plays at all. They were able to get pressure to Hurts, and somewhat keep him from taking over the game. When we compare this defensive performance to how other Bill Belichick-led defenses have fared against mobile quarterbacks, there is a lot to be positive about. Christian Gonzalez, the rookie cornerback first-round pick out of Oregon, showed well in his regular-season opener. He was set with the daunting task of manning up with AJ Brown most of the game and Gonzalez performed well in this position overall. Getting the sack on the cornerback blitz was also great to see from the rookie. We also saw rookie defensive lineman second-round pick out of Georgia Tech Keion White get pressure on Hurts making him very uncomfortable. Matthew Judon performed well as always getting in for a sack, as did Josh Uche. Ja’Whaun Bentley was the stud on the defense leading with nine tackles and the game-changing fumble at the end of the game to give the offense a chance to win.
Rookie Special Teamers Get First Taste of Action
We got our first look in a real game at the rookie special teamers: Chad Ryland, a kicker out of Maryland taken in the fourth round, and Bryce Baringer, a punter out of Michigan State taken in the sixth round. A lot will be made about the performance of these two throughout the season with draft capital being expended on such low-importance players. Ryland would knock two extra points in with ease, not yet given a field goal attempt. Baringer would have a great day landing three punts inside the 20 in five tries, but an untimely touchback late in the fourth quarter that could’ve kept the defensive pressure on Philadelphia.
Coaching Was Bold, Maybe Too Much So
A lot of coaching decisions can be examined late in Sunday’s game as traversing the ups and downs of sudden momentum. Despite the Eagles reaching this eventual field position later in this mid-fourth quarter drive, Belichick was able to correctly challenge and overturn what would’ve been a 48-yard gain between Jalen Hurts and AJ Brown of the Eagles. As the Patriots have been in a general decline since the departure of Brady, we’ve heard that Robert Kraft has wanted to retract the responsibility and power that Belichick holds within the organization. With the addition of a notable former offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien, to both New England and Mac Jones, the decision-making on the offensive side of the ball is surely left for O’Brien.
The decision to go for certain fourth-down situations late in the game can be questioned. Going for a 4th and three and not taking the field goal in an eight-point game with ten minutes to go is questionable, especially after having already converted a 4th and eight on the drive. Points needed to be had on this drive with the faith in the defense to get a stop. As we saw later in this game, having a field goal from this possession could’ve been crucial to a positive result.
Two possessions later, after forcing a huge turnover after scoring a touchdown to make it a five-point game, the Patriots continued with small ball deciding not to take a shot after the big swing in possession. They were then faced with a 4th and 12 on three plays later, which turned into a 4th and 17 after a delay of game penalty. The decision to go for a 4th and 17 at midfield was extremely questionable with three timeouts and the two-minute warning still in play. With how well their punter had been placing the ball and a stout defensive performance, the Patriots could’ve found themselves in a much better position. They were just lucky enough that the Eagles were willing to go for a bold fourth down conversion of their own which they were stopped on giving the Patriots that final chance late in the game.
The Patriots (0-1) will now look ahead for their first win of the season next week when they play host to the Miami Dolphins (1-0) next Sunday.