Patriots have a lot to feel good about despite squandering upset chance vs. Eagles

FOXBORO, Mass. — Everything was set up perfectly for quarterback Mac Jones and the New England Patriots. Thanks to another defensive stand, they got the ball back with only 56 yards separating them from what would be an incredible come-from-behind win over the defending NFC-champion Philadelphia Eagles in the season opener.

This was a chance to prove that Jones and the offense are a different group than the one plagued by inefficiencies and incompetence a year ago. A chance to rub it in to the doubters who thought this Patriots team didn’t stand a chance against the Eagles and doesn’t have a shot at making the playoffs. And, yes, a chance with Tom Brady in the stands to pull off the kind of late comeback that he completed so many times on this field.

But that’s now how things have gone for the Patriots since No. 12 left, and that’s not how it went in Sunday’s 25-20 loss. Instead, even on a night their defense dominated what’s supposed to be one of the league’s best offenses, they made too many unforced errors to win.



Eagles hold on to beat Patriots in Week 1

Here’s the thing though: The Patriots are going to get another shot in a situation like this. Probably a lot of shots, even. That’s because they are built for these kinds of games.

In many ways, the first game of the season revealed that the Patriots are, to borrow a phrase from Dennis Green, who we thought they were. This is a team with a very good defense capable of shutting down the best teams in the league. Their special teams seem to be good. Same for their game-planning. Their offense is better and should improve as the season goes on, even if it’s not a top-10 unit. That combination is going to lead to a lot of close games in the fourth quarter.

If the Patriots chalk up Sunday’s loss to a learning experience, they can end up better off for it. After all, there was a lot to be gleaned from their late struggles.

They got the ball with great field position and a chance to take the lead with less than five minutes remaining — twice. But the errors began to pile up. In the last 20 minutes alone, the Patriots had:

• A drop from Kendrick Bourne on a crucial third-and-12. It came on a low pass in traffic, a play that on one hand was difficult to make but on another was the kind of gotta-have-it moment where you need your best players to make plays. “A drop, honestly,” is how Bourne described it. “I pride myself on making hard catches.”

• A delay-of-game penalty at a point when they were supposed to be up-tempo. Instead of fourth-and-12, they were facing fourth-and-17. They threw short of the sticks on the fourth-down play.

• A terrible holding penalty from Atonio Mafi that took them out of field goal range. (It followed a Hunter Henry flag for holding, but that was a poor call. The Mafi one was obvious.)

• A mistake from rookie Kayshon Boutte on the final offensive play when he was unable to tap both feet in bounds on fourth-and-11. A completion would’ve given the Patriots the ball inside the 10 with a chance to win the game.

“(We) did enough things to make it competitive, but not enough to win,” coach Bill Belichick said. “Got to coach better. Got to play better.”

Jones took this game especially hard, and it’s not clear entirely what to make of his performance.

Optimists could point out that he completed 35 of 54 passes for 316 yards and three touchdowns and note via eye test how much more competent and confident he seemed in this offense with Bill O’Brien running things.

Pessimists, on the other hand, could note that his 316 yards came on 54 passes (a meager 5.8 yards per attempt), that he put the Patriots in a hole with a pick six on a poor throw to Bourne, and that he didn’t get the job done despite twice being gifted great field position and a chance at the winning drive.

“The rookies played really well, the offensive line played really well, the skill players played really well,” Jones said. “I definitely let the team down tonight. We couldn’t score early, and we just fell behind because of me. I just put it on myself.”

In truth, there was a lot for the Patriots to feel good about after Sunday’s game, even if it feels weird to talk about moral victories with Tom Brady in the stadium.

But their defense was so notably good — even if they lost. The Eagles managed one touchdown on offense, and that was only after Ezekiel Elliott’s fumble gave the Eagles the ball at the New England 26. The Pats had three sacks against one of the NFL’s best offensive lines and limited Jalen Hurts to a measly 170 passing yards. Philadelphia managed just 4.1 yards per play (the worst team in the league last year averaged 4.7 yards per play).

The Patriots’ special teams provided a boost, too. Ty Montgomery had a 43-yard kick return, and Marcus Jones had a 21-yard punt return. Those two phases were just as the Patriots envisioned. And those two phases are going to keep this team in a lot of games.

The question going forward is whether the offense can get more consistent as the line gets healthy and the players get more familiar with O’Brien’s scheme. With the way the defense played against the Eagles, Jones and the offense will have plenty more chances to orchestrate game-winning drives.

On the Patriots’ two possessions late in the fourth quarter with a chance at the lead, Jones completed 4 of his 8 passes for 30 yards and was sacked twice.

They know how difficult this season is going to be, facing the toughest schedule in the league and with injuries already piling up on the offensive line. They know they let a chance slip away against one of the league’s best teams. But they also know this defense will keep them in games. And if they learn to close out contests like this and limit the unforced errors, the future will look brighter.

“When you’ve got a defense as good as we do, you’re always going to be in the game,” Elliott said. “We’ve just got to do our part when our number is called.”

(Photo of Mac Jones and Atonio Mafi: Maddie Meyer / Getty Images)

The Football 100, the definitive ranking of the NFL’s best 100 players of all time, goes on sale this fall. Pre-order it here.

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