By Ernie Palladino
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Really, the way the fates have always favored Bill Belichick, Tom Brady and the New England Patriots, would anyone have been shocked if Rob Gronkowski had gotten his hands on that last-second heave?
And if the Pats were then successful on the two-point conversion?
And then won in overtime?
It’s not like the Pats haven’t fought off the ropes before. Just two weeks ago, the Jaguars blew a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter and succumbed to Brady’s magic. And it wasn’t a surprise to see the Pats go up by a point in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl LII on Sunday night.
But this time it was different. Brady, as usual looking nothing like 40, did just about everything he could to bring a sixth Lombardi Trophy of his reign back to Foxborough. It wasn’t hard to see that in a game where the Pats rolled up 631 yards of an NFL combined postseason record 1,151 yards of offense, not to mention the record for combined points in the Eagles’ 41-33 shootout win in Minneapolis.
In fact, with the Pats traipsing up and down the field for the better part of four quarters, matching the Eagles’ offensive prowess along the way, it looked like just the kind of game Brady would pull out of the fire. He didn’t even have a 25-point deficit like the one he faced against Atlanta last February to deal with.
This one, it seemed, would go down easy enough. Brady owns the fourth quarter, after all, like no one else in the league.
And yet, the one mistake his offensive line made buried him.
With 2:09 remaining and the Pats down five, defensive end Brandon Graham charged in off the right side and knocked the ball out of Brady’s grip. Derek Barnett recovered at the New England 31. It was the Pats’ only turnover of the game. Coincidentally, it was the only sack of the game for either side.
Jake Elliott wound up kicking a 46-yard field goal to move the Eagles’ lead to eight points with 1:05 remaining.
Until that point, Brady had done a fine job. Though not as artistic as he usually is thanks to some up-front pressure from the Eagles, he and Gronkowski made for a wonderful second-half connection. Gronk, freshly recovered from his concussion at the hands of Jacksonville, had nine catches for 116 yards and two touchdowns, all but one reception and nine of those yards coming over the final 30 minutes.
Brady even had a shot at catching a key second-quarter pass on a gadget play from Danny Amendola, his prime receiver after the great Gronk saw stars two weeks ago.
Brady would have none of that glory, however. Nick Foles, who should now be known as The GBOAT (Greatest Backup Of All Time), got that distinction when he caught tight end Trey Burton’s touchdown throw off Corey Clement’s fourth-and-1 lateral for a second-quarter touchdown.
Still, there were plenty of chances for Brady to bring his team back. He stuck right with the Eagles, reducing their lead to three with a nifty touchdown throw to Chris Hogan, and finally answering Jake Elliott’s 42-yard field goal with a go-ahead touchdown that Gronkowski wrestled away from Ronald Darby in the end zone.
The man finished with 505 yards passing.
And yet, it seemed a little justice from the NFL’s catch rule undermined the Pats as much as that faulty play on the game-icing series. After a season of benefiting from the maddening “survive the ground” end zone rulings, one of them finally came back to bite the NFL’s premier franchise.
With the Eagles trailing, Foles found Zach Ertz a few yards before the end zone. Three steps and a launch across the goal line later the ball clearly hit the ground, flipped into the air and settled into the tight end’s grasp.
A replay showed Ertz had covered enough ground to be deemed a runner, meaning the play died as soon as the ball broke the plane.
Eagles up 38-33.
Whether Bill Belichick will want to discuss the merits of the existing catch rule with Roger Goodell has yet to be determined.
Regardless, Brady will have to wait another year for a shot at his sixth Super Bowl win. He will now have an entire winter to sit back, lick his avocado ice cream and wonder how a cucumber-cool backup matched him pass for pass. With no nerves, no sense of awe of the greatest passer who ever lived, Foles took the Lombardi Trophy to Philly for the first time.
It shouldn’t be too painful. One strip sack and fumble stood in Brady’s way.
And that wasn’t all his fault.
Maybe it’s just the NFC East.
The Eagles did join the Giants as the only teams to beat him in eight tries, after all.
And if Gronk had gotten his hands on that last pass, well, who knows?
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