What happened?!

GRIDIRON AUDIBLES by Christian A. Guarino
GRIDIRON AUDIBLES by Christian A. Guarino

Two weeks ago the Patriots were 10-0 and stood atop both the AFC East division and the AFC standings. Quarterback Tom Brady was heading for his third NFL MVP and Bill Belichick was going to be the first head coach to lead two teams to perfect 16-0 regular seasons. Now the team has sustained two of the more uncharacteristic losses under the Belichick/Brady regime. It began with a road affair with the Peyton Manning-less Broncos in Denver.

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Brady was leading a depleted offensive unit and held a 21-7 lead in the fourth quarter. The Broncos who had handed the reins of the offense to quarterback Brock Osweiler were dejected, dead and it looked like the Patriots were heading to 11-0. Suddenly, things went south. A muffed punt by wide receiver Chris Harper gave the Broncos a heartbeat and three scores later, the Denver faithful had plenty to celebrate as the home team had a 24-21 lead with a little over a minute to play. Julian Edelman was out, Danny Amendola was out and Rob Gronkowski had just been knocked out of the game. Yet Brady mustered up his trademark magic to get the Patriots in Stephen Gostkowski field goal range. Gostkowski nailed the 47-yarder as time expired and overtime now loomed. That was where the magic once again ran out. Following a Patriots 3-and-out, C.J. Anderson ended the game and the Patriots run at perfection with a 48-yard scamper down the sideline for the decisive six points.  Last Sunday, at Gillette no less, the Patriots dropped a 35-28 decision to the 5-7 Philadelphia Eagles. Yes, the same Eagles that came in on a three game losing streak having succumbed to the Miami Dolphins, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Detroit Lions by a combined score of 110-50.

Down 35-14, the Patriots put together a respectable comeback, but ultimately earlier mistakes, and there were plenty, did them in. Two interceptions by Brady, one of which was returned 99-yards for a score by cornerback Malcolm Jenkins, sparked the reenergized Eagles. Once again the New England special teams unit had a hand in the defeat as a second quarter Ryan Allen punt was blocked and recovered for six points by linebacker Najee Goode and a third quarter punt was returned by Darren Sproles 83 yards for another score.

To say the Patriots have sustained critical injuries to the starting 22 is undeniable, however something much more sinister has been evident the past two weeks. The Patriots are simply playing un-Patriot like. Mental mistakes and bone-headed coaching (yes, even the great Bill Belichick can be faulted) have aided the two-game losing streak.  No matter the injuries, the Patriots should have defeated the Eagles last Sunday. This time the referees were not the excuse, especially since the first eight penalties of the game were called on Philadelphia. The Patriots were only flagged on three occasions.

Up 14, having just scored midway through the second quarter and with the Eagles offense completely immobilized (sound familiar?) Belichick decided to have former rugby player Nate Ebner drop-kick the ball on the kickoff. The poorly executed play resulted with the Eagles recovering and gaining a head of steam on their way to 35 unanswered points. For all his brilliance, this was another example of Belichick trying to outsmart an opponent with a cute play when a traditional call would have sufficed. Another headscratcher, albeit less questionable call, came with three minutes to play after Brady had cut the deficit to a touchdown. Instead of kicking off and relying on his defense, which had played a decent game, with two timeouts and the two-minute warning at his disposal, Belichick ordered yet another failed onside kick by Ebner.

“We threw stuff at them and they handled it,” said “kicker” Ebner after the game. “They threw stuff at us that we didn’t.” Even after a two game skid, the Patriots are far from fatally wounded and are capable of turning things around. It simply comes down to playing smarter football. History has proven they will.

Christian A. Guarino, a Boston North End resident, writes about football and soccer for the Boston Post Gazette.