Lots to hate, but way more to love in Patriots' loss to Eagles

Lots to hate, but way more to love in Patriots' loss to Eagles originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

The Patriots -- bless ‘em -- really gave us an unsolvable one on Sunday.

To come out and immediately riddle their own cleats with bullet holes with four -- count ‘em, FOUR! -- cataclysmic unforced errors in the first 12 minutes of the season? And then to dominate pretty much all of the next 48 minutes against one of the five best teams in football?

To play so well against a non-doormat – the best performance since Tom Brady was shuffled out the door? With rookies at both guard spots against a team that led the league in sacks with 70 last year (15 more than No. 2 Kansas City)? With a rookie starting at corner and another rookie playing 23 effective snaps on the defensive line and two rookie wideouts on the field for 88 combined plays and not looking completely lost (sideline awareness notwithstanding)?

Allowing two sacks and orchestrating the complicated dance that is the screen game with a new offensive coordinator a new offensive line coach and a right tackle (Calvin Anderson) who didn’t play a snap in the preseason? In the first game since 2010 without Devin McCourty on the roster, getting an organ-rattling forced fumble at an absolutely GOTTA HAVE IT! moment thanks to the consistently-overlooked Jabrill Peppers? For Bill O’Brien roll back the stone and let Kendrick Bourne walk out of the cave and rejoin the living?

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The Eagles -- who scored 30-plus points in each of their three playoff games last year and should have won the Super Bowl -- scored one offensive touchdown. And that was thanks in part to a defensive hold that wiped out a sack that would have had Philly in third-and-12.

After that touchdown, here were the results of the Eagles drives:

  • Three plays, punt

  • Three plays, punt

  • Three plays, punt

  • Three plays, punt

  • 10 plays, field goal

  • Seven plays, field goal

  • One play, fumble

  • Four plays, turnover on downs

This defense got run over by Lamar Jackson and Justin Fields last year, got thrown over by Kirk Cousins and Joe Burrow and got a little of both from Josh Allen. They stunk against good offenses. They were absolutely terrific against the Eagles. No caveats.

And that’s the thing about this loss. They were guilty early of precisely the un-Patriotic stuff I said they had to stop. Bad. Very bad. But the rest of the way they were -- no qualifiers -- the better football team.

Sucks to be 0-1. But this isn’t lipstick on a pig or whipped cream on poop. This was the longest stretch of competency against a quality opponent in a damn long time.

Last year, we did give out some gold stars when for mere competency. They had a moral victory in Green Bay because they didn’t get boat-raced after Bailey Zappe came in. Yay.

They got another one from me when they were one score away against the Ravens until late. But that loss was pock-marked by three Mac Jones picks and a chuck-and-duck offensive plan that just happened to hit a few times.

I may have given them a subtle thumbs-up for hanging around against Minnesota. I was NOT enthused by the fraudulent comeback against the Bengals.

I’m not giving Sunday a chef’s kiss salute. There was stuff to hate.

I LOATHED the fact that a preventable error like lining up in the neutral zone (Deatrich Wise) wiped out a 10-yard loss and an impending third-and-15 on the Eagles' first drive. That drive ended with a field goal.

Also LOATHED Jones throwing WAY too high for Kendrick Bourne when Jones had plenty of time and a clean pocket, gifting the Eagles a pick-6 touchdown.

I LOATHED that Jones threw too high to Ezekiel Elliott on the very next play from scrimmage, and that Elliott got loose with the ball and was stripped easily.

I LOATHED the defensive hold by Kyle Dugger that wiped out a Wise sack and an impending third-and-12, instead giving the Eagles a first down and -- moments after -- their only offensive touchdown.

After that, I didn’t hate much.

I agreed with Bill Belichick’s decision to go for it on fourth-and-8 from the Eagles 36 while trailing 22-14 with 11:44 left. Down eight or down five, you still need a touchdown. The defense had Philly in check. A 53-yarder with a rookie kicker was probably a coin flip.

I didn’t love the decision to go for it on fourth-and-3 from the 17 on the same drive with 9:39 left. I understand the “in for a dime, in for a dollar” mentality of continuing to go for it after having done so earlier in the drive. And if it was a decision borne of confidence in the offense, I like it more. But I kind of suspect it had at least a little to do with not wanting the rookie Chad Ryland kicking in that spot.

Which is irritatingly inconsistent. If you have the stones to draft a kicker in the fourth round and allow him to replace the machine that is Nick Folk, don’t be afraid of what might go wrong if you put Ryland out there.

Oh wait. I also loathed the four-and-out with 3:28 left following the Peppers forced fumble with the Patriots down 25-20. Second down sack. A drop by Bourne (there was traffic, but it was a drop) on a Mac Jones circle change while under pressure, a stupid-ass delay of game on fourth-and-12 from the 43 and then another throw on fourth-and-17 so slow you could read Goodell’s signature on the ball. Hunter Henry dropped it short of the sticks, but the drop was similar to a JuJu Smith-Schuster drop earlier in the game when Jones perplexed him with his slow ball. (My Bugs Bunny people will know).

Final loathing? Belichick moaning that media would have second-guessed him if he decided to kick field goals instead of going for fourth-down conversions.

Q: Early fourth quarter, fourth-and-3 from the 17. You opt to go for it instead of kicking the field goal. What went into that decision?

BB: I felt like it was the best decision for the team.

Q: In hindsight, do you wish you had kicked more field goals in this one?

BB: Made the best decision we could at the time. Didn't know we would be down there multiple times. Six minutes to go in the game. I don't know. If we had kicked it, I'm sure you would be asking why didn't we go for it.

Yeah, probably. Because people like to understand the thought process and strategy of the greatest coach in league history on a difficult decision after spending three hours consuming the game and an entire offseason following the team.

Aside from all that, I really, really enjoyed the product. I like the direction. I remain a little frustrated they went on sabbatical last year while Belichick ran an experiment on just how much damage an inexperienced an offensive coordinator could inflict on a decent second-year quarterback. But that was what it was.

People chest-puff and wail that, “THERE ARE NO MORAL VICTORIES!!!” That’s bullshit. Two of the most important games in Patriots history were losses that hinted at better days – the 1996 loss at Dallas and the 2001 regular-season loss to the Rams.

Those were fuel. This game might be too. I guess you can’t judge a moral victory in the immediate aftermath. You have to see what’s done with the momentum.

But I think most of us know a bad team when we see it, even if the record says they are “good” (like last year’s Patriots when they were 5-4).  And I know a good team when I see it, even if their record is 0-1.