Did Eagles finally expose New England's few flaws?
The Eagles' defensive game plan came closer than anyone has to stopping the Patriots. The thing is, New England still won, writes Len Pasquarelli.
But to Patriots wide receiver Wes Welker, who helped to scuttle the Eagles' upset plans, there was one primary reason why Johnson's terrific template ultimately failed to staunch the Patriots on their seemingly inexorable march toward the league's first 16-0 regular season.
"You're not going to fool [quarterback] Tom Brady, that's all there is to it," said Welker, who had 13 receptions for 149 yards in the Patriots' 31-28 comeback victory that stretched New England's unblemished record to 11-0. "As much as you try, it's not going to happen. Tom is simply too good and too smart ... and that's the bottom line."
Brady once again proved both sensational and savvy, completing 34 of 54 passes for 380 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions to rally New England from a four-point deficit midway through the fourth quarter.
On the winning drive, which culminated with tailback Laurence Maroney's 4-yard touchdown run over left guard, Brady made superb adjustments, eschewing the Pats' typical vertical game to Randy Moss and instead zeroing in on his other talented receivers. Welker had three receptions for 39 yards on the drive, each catch moving the chain for first downs on an evening when he proved to be the one weapon in the considerable Patriots' arsenal that the creative Johnson and his ever-changing coverage scheme could not disarm.
Every catch was necessary because Moss did not have a reception in the second half and finished with just five catches for 43 yards. Sunday's nail-biter also marked the first time this season that Brady did not have at least three touchdown passes in a game, and in keeping with the preposterous tote-board style totals the Patriots have rung up, the 31 points actually represented their second-lowest output of the year.
"But the thing is," said wide receiver Jabar Gaffney, who had six catches for 87 yards and one score, and who was especially effective in the first half, "we still won."
True enough. But one can now expect that the video of Philadelphia's defensive package from Sunday night will become about as meticulously scrutinized a bit of celluloid as the Zapruder film. Because even though the Patriots finally overcame Johnson's devious and diverse design, which featured a "Joker" blitzer and a wide variety of rush fronts, the Eagles clearly were effective in forcing New England to work for everything it got.
And while Brady was characteristically brilliant, the Pats still needed two interceptions from cornerback Asante Samuel -- one returned for a touchdown just 1:22 into the game, and the other coming in the end zone, when Philadelphia quarterback A.J. Feeley got overly greedy with 3:52 left in the game -- to stay undefeated. Feeley threw a third interception in the final minute, with safety James Sanders making the pick.
"They forced us into some things," acknowledged Patriots coach Bill Belichick. "They're a good team and they showed us a lot of different things."
Long known for his exotic blitzes and for bringing late pass-rushers from a variety of angles, Johnson used myriad fronts to thwart the potent New England passing attack. At various times, he used as few as three rushers and, on occasions, as many as six; the latter is the style most Philadelphia opponents adopt. Only once did he blitz and rush six defenders on successive plays, but Brady was still sacked three times, and he took one particularly hard hit -- a sack by defensive end Juqua Thomas that came off a three-man rush in the first quarter.
The Patriots countered by spreading the field, often relying on an "empty" formation that featured five receivers and no running back. And in the first half, New England all but abandoned the run. In fact, in the opening two quarters, the Patriots had just two rushes, and only one was on a designed running play, which netted 1 yard. The other was a 12-yard scramble by Brady when he was flushed from the pocket.
For much of the half, Brady operated from the shotgun, and the Pats simply kept throwing, with Brady finally connecting on a beautiful 19-yard pass to Gaffney at the very back of the end zone to lift New England into a 24-21 intermission lead with eight seconds left in the half.
There is a school of thought that, against a team that blitzes as injudiciously as the Eagles, it is best to spread the field. The rationale is that such a formation better allows a quarterback to see where the blitz is coming from. It also gives the receivers a better look at the coverages, letting them make quicker route adjustments.
"I'd say we kind of [subscribe] to that thinking," Gaffney said. "But they did a lot of other stuff, too, to keep us a little out of sync."
Part of the Eagles' game plan was to take away the deep ball, to roll additional defenders toward Moss to avoid the quick strike, and to force the other New England receivers to make plays. "And, thankfully, we did," Welker said.
On offense, the Eagles started the game by putting the ball in the hands of elusive tailback Brian Westbrook, forcing the slower New England linebackers to cover the league's best all-around back in space. Feeley also threw indiscriminately at the New England safeties and at nickel cornerback Randall Gay. Strong safety Rodney Harrison was a frequent target.
But deep in the fourth quarter, with a viable chance for the upset, Feeley went for the big play and missed Kevin Curtis in the deep right corner of the end zone on a second-and-4 from the Patriots' 29-yard line. Samuel made his second interception of the night to keep the unbeaten streak alive.
"We thought we had a shot there," Feeley said, "but [Samuel] was just so deep, I couldn't get it over him. I tried to get it deep and allow [Curtis] to make a play. It was probably a mistake. We didn't make many, but that was one of them. But, basically, I thought that we came out and hung with them."
And in so doing, the Eagles provided future New England opponents some hope and direction, perhaps, on how to do the same.
"Hey, it's a copycat league," Gaffney said. "I'm sure people all over the league are going to look at the tape from tonight and try to incorporate some of it into their game plans. And it's going to be up to us, just like we did here, to adjust and make plays."
Senior writer Len Pasquarelli covers the NFL for ESPN.com.