MINNEAPOLIS – So many times this season, New England’s defense made plays when it had to give Tom Brady and the Patriots offense a chance to win.
But with the man responsible for the biggest defensive plays in Patriots’ Super Bowl history watching from the bench, it couldn’t figure out the Philadelphia Eagles in a 41-33 loss Super Bowl loss on Sunday.
Malcolm Butler, whose interception in the end zone sealed New England’s Super win over Seattle in the 2015 Super Bowl, didn’t play a defensive snap on Sunday.
Bill Belichick said only that they “put the best players in the game plan like we always do.” Defensive coordinator Matt Patricia said Butler was in parts of the game plan, but those parts weren’t used in the game.
Butler missed a day of practice last week with an illness. He warmed up and was in uniform, but watched the game’s biggest moments from the sideline. It was the first Patriots game in which Butler did not play a first-quarter snap since their Super Bowl win over Seattle to cap the 2014 season. He started 17 of New England’s previous 18 games entering Sunday, including both playoff victories.
He seemed exasperated afterward, telling reporters: “I ain’t got nothing to say.”
Later though, he said, according to ESPN Boston: “They gave up on me. (Expletive), it is what it is. I guess I wasn’t playing good or they didn’t feel comfortable. I don’t know. But I could have changed that game.”
Without him, New England’s defense – and particular the secondary – had trouble keeping Foles and Philadelphia’s offense in check.
New England allowed 41 points, more than they have given up in any Super Bowl in the Belichick era. It also surrendered 538 total yards, including 373 through the air to MVP Nick Foles. LeGarrette Blount, a former Patriots running back, rushed 14 times for 90 yards and touchdown.
Eric Rowe started in Butler’s place. He struggled early, giving up three catches for 66 yards, including Foles’ first touchdown pass to Alshon Jeffery.
Butler’s teammates seemed confused by the change, which cornerback Stephon Gilmore said they didn’t find out until game time.
“Could he have helped us out? I don’t know. He wasn’t out there, so I don’t know,” Gilmore said. “We just couldn’t never get off the field. I mean, we could never make a play to give the ball back out our offense.”
The Eagles punted only once in the game and converted on a pair of fourth downs.
The Patriots offense did its part. It didn’t punt and had no turnovers through three quarters. After playing from behind most of the night, Brady gave New England its first lead of the game, 33-32 on a 4-yard touchdown pass to Rob Gronkowski with 9:22 to play.
But when the Patriots needed a hero late, no one was able to make a big play.
And on the ensuing drive New England safety Devin McCourty couldn’t keep Zach Ertz from stretching the ball across the goal line for an 11-yard touchdown reception from Foles that wound up being the game winner .
The Patriots entered the game with 159-15 record, including 16-0 in the playoffs when they had won the turnover battle.
They had the first one of the night, on an interception by safety Duron Harmon in the first half.
But it wasn’t enough.
Philadelphia used some trickery, facing fourth-and-goal on the 1 with less than a minute to play in the half.
After a timeout, the Eagles got the ball to Trey Burton on a reverse, who flipped a pass to a wide-open Foles for a touchdown.
New England pulled to within 22-19 after scoring on the opening drive of the second half.
The Patriots defense would break down again, though, this time letting Corey Clement get behind Marquis Flowers and McCourty for an over the shoulder 22-yard catch in the back of the end zone.
Safety Patrick Chung was shaken up on that play and missed a few series. He returned to action in the fourth quarter but had to leave again late in the game with a head injury.
“There was nothing we hadn’t seen. We just didn’t play good fundamentally,” Rowe said.
He said Butler was a presence on the sideline even though he didn’t play.
“After that first touchdown he just came up to me and was like ‘Keep playing. Keep your head up. It’s a long way. It’s a long game.’ So he wasn’t upset,” Rowe said. “He was being a great teammate.”
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