PHILADELPHIA — It seemed like a game to celebrate the New England Patriots rebounding from a loss to the Baltimore Ravens with a shutdown defensive effort. Bill Belichick went so far as to say he felt like the Patriots really only gave up three points to the Philadelphia Eagles, because officials overturned an interception to give the Eagles their only touchdown of the day.
Tom Brady had another view of the Patriots‘ 17-10 victory and it was not a cheery one. In an unusually clipped tone, with a scowl on his face, Brady made clear his frustration with a sputtering offense that continued to struggle against the Eagles.
Asked if the Patriots‘ repeated problems in the red zone — they were 1 of 3 Sunday and entered the game converting just 50 percent of their trips into the red zone into touchdowns — could be remedied by practice and better execution, he replied, barely audibly: “Yeah. I think that’s right, practice and execution.”
How does the offense look? “Up and down, what it looks like to me. Probably do everything better.” It was noted that he was clearly dejected, despite the victory: “Just played four three hours. Everyone’s a little tired.”
And what does he think will get the offense on track?
“I don’t think it matters what I think. It matters what we do.”
So apparently the relative ebullience of Belichick — who called to Brady from the hallway as Brady was about to enter the locker room, stopping him for an embrace and a “good win, man” — did not rub off on the quarterback. Brady’s frustration with the execution — and perhaps with the lack of top-level weapons — has leaked out in bits and pieces throughout the season. But the Patriots are rapidly approaching the point in the season when they typically round into form and for the offense, at least, it is a concern that they are struggling well into November. Especially because the Patriots are entering what, on paper, appears to be the gauntlet of their schedule. They lost by 17 points to the Ravens, prevailed over the equally punchless Eagles and now have the Cowboys, Texans and Chiefs ahead of them. Brady threw 14 incompletions in the first half against the Eagles and while he threw seven touchdowns and no interceptions in the first three games of the season, he has had just seven touchdowns and five interceptions in the last seven, including no touchdown passes tonight. Here is a startling statistic: Brady was 26 of 47 for 216 yards — a 55 percent completion rate.
Other than Julian Edelman, who was targeted 10 times and threw the only touchdown pass of the day on a trick play to Phillip Dorsett, it is hard to tell who Brady trusts, particularly in the red zone. The retirement of Rob Gronkowski, the releases of Antonio Brown and Josh Gordon, and the newness of Mohamed Sanu have conspired to slow an offense that seems to gain traction only when it goes uptempo, which the Patriots did to open the third quarter, resulting in the Dorsett touchdown. That is enough when facing an offense that has Zach Ertz and little else. It may very well not be enough against more functional offenses like the Patriots will likely see in the coming weeks.
“Keeping us in every game,” Brady said.
That was certainly true Sunday. This was a bounce back game for the group that was shredded by the Ravens. The Eagles raced to a 10-point lead but even that was quirky. Their first drive, which resulted in a field goal, was largely the result of a 49 yard pass interference penalty on Jason McCourty. Their third drive ended with the disputed touchdown catch. The Eagles did not get back into Patriots territory until late in the game, when a drive ended on downs at the New England 26. In all, the Eagles converted just 3 of 13 third down opportunities.
The difference, said Devin McCourty, was that early in the game, the Patriots were giving up six or seven yards on early downs, allowing the Eagles to get in a rhythm. Once they were able to get the Eagles into third and longer, they could rattle Carson Wentz, who often held the ball too long while desperately looking for anybody to throw to with no DeSean Jackson or Alshon Jeffrey available to get outside with speed. Wentz was sacked five times, and completed just 20 of 40 passes for 214 yards.
Lamar Jackson is, of course, a unique talent, but the Patriots now have Dak Prescott, Deshaun Watson and Patrick Mahomes to look forward to. With the offense so inconsistent, the pressure will be on the defense to look more like it has the rest of the year and never again have the kind of lapse it did against Baltimore.
“Last time we took the field, I wouldn’t say dominant was anything that came to mind the way we played defensively,” McCourty said, referring to the Baltimore game. “If we get off target we know it’s not too far from how we looked last time we were out there.”
For the Patriots, the hope is that the offense will start to click, particularly as Sanu becomes more acclimated, and that those threads of success from going uptempo can be extended. For the last 20 years, the Patriots have taught us to expect some ugliness early in the season as Belichick experiments with what his team can do, but precision late. It is getting late in 2019, and the precision is still not there for the offense. Until it arrives — if it arrives — this version of the Patriots will harken back to the earliest years of the dynasty, when Brady was young and inexperienced, and the championships were defined by defenses.
Brady may be frustrated along the way by how his offense performs. But it’s probably worth remembering that the last time the Patriots and Eagles played, both teams raced up and down the field and the Patriots lost the Super Bowl. And last year, it was the defense that stifled the Rams for the Patriots sixth title. And unless Gronkowski is about to unexpectedly walk through that locker room door, Brady may have to get used to his career twilight looking a lot like his career birth.
Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @JudyBattista.