Five on the Patriots
PHILADELPHIA (973espn.com) - All those negative people blocked from Brandon Graham's Twitter account probably would have went with Tom Petty's "Free Fallin'" but, ever the optimist, Chip Kelly kicked off Eagles practice Thursday with the Dropkick Murphys' "I'm Shipping Up To Boston."
Or Foxborough to be exact as Philadelphia, the once, self-proclaimed gold standard, has the unenviable task of trying to halt a three-game losing streak to real thing, the mighty 10-1 New England Patriots, who come in fresh off their lone loss of the season, a 30-24 overtime setback in Denver.
Here's the problem:
Since the beginning of the 2003 season, the Patriots are 38-4 in regular-season games following a loss, including 11 straight following a defeat. Over that same span New England has dropped back-to-back contests exactly four times. Meanwhile, in their last 60 December games the Pats are 52-8.
"As soon as that game's over with, we try to turn the page as quickly as possible," Pats quarterback Tom Brady said of his team's mentality after a loss. "We have to move on with different challenges, whether that's personnel-related or scheme-related. Every week you just have to start out with a fresh slate."
Forget the Eagles, Ethan Hunt may not accept this mission.
(Listen to John McMullen discuss Five on the Patriots)
NEXT MAN UP
If you are looking for something to give you hope, hang your hat on this: you know going in that injuries have left Brady without three of his top four receiving targets this season in tight end Rob Gronkoswki, receiver Julian Edelman and scatback Dion Lewis. The fourth, receiver Danny Amendola, is also touch and go.
“Next man up” is a favorite rallying cry around a league in which injuries are a part of life for every team. To be blunt though, the cliche is usually lip service especially when the injuries are taking down key contributors, an often pitiable effort to boost the confidence of an under whelming reserve or temper a fan base on the verge of nervous breakdown.
Unless you are the Patriots. People can debate Bill Belichick’s greatness as a coach and most will boil it down to Xs and Os and an almost encyclopedic knowledge of the game itself. To me, the four-time Super Bowl winner laps the field with his managing of personalities much like Phil Jackson once did in the NBA.
Belichick’s belief in his players has always made the whole that is greater than the simple sum of its parts. If you put on a Patriots uniform — whether you’re Brady or recently acquired ex-Eagles Damaris Johnson — the coach expects that you will be able to handle your role when called upon.
It’s a simple philosophy but one easier said than done because when any team loses a star, the natural reaction is to play the woe-is-me game and wonder how you could possibly recreate their production with someone else.
Confidence can do wonders for a professional athlete and a simple tactic like expecting Nos. 1 through 53 on the roster to do their job is a powerful elixir that promotes success.
"Did they lose Brady? Because that I think would really, truly affect them," Eagles coach Chip Kelly said. "And I think it really just speaks to how good of a football player Tom is and the fact that they have had a lot of moving pieces around him.
"For them, it's that next-man-up mentality, which it really helps when (Brady’s) the guy pulling the trigger because he really is an orchestra leader out there in terms of directing protections, changing routes and changing everything. He's been in that offense since he's been in the league, so he's got an unbelievable command of it. And then they find a way to find players that kind of fit and they know what the individual player can do and they try to maximize that."
Scott Chandler and Brandon Bolden are this players now and both caught touchdown passes against Denver. Meanwhile, Amendola hopes to return after sitting out last week with a knee injury.
"Danny tells me (he's ready) every week," Brady said. "Danny's a tough guy. He's a warrior."
Brady has to be in any conversation about the greatest quarterbacks of all-time. The numbers are obviously there and at 38, he is the leading candidate to be the NFL's MVP this season but the only numbers that really define "Tom Terrific" are the wins and losses. Brady is a mind-numbing 170-48 as the Pats' starting QB, an almost unfathomable .780 winning percentage, the best of any signal caller in the Super Bowl era.
"We have to be ready," Eagles defensive coordinator Bill Davis admitted. "They not only change it on the line. It's one of the things that makes them great. Brady has been in the system for 16, 17 years. They have this thing wired. They've got it wired, where they not only change the play at the line, but in between series, they can change the whole plan. They go from having a two-tight-end, two-back plan, to empty, spread out, every other series. So you are defending by series a plan of attack that's coming at you."
Since entering the NFL in 2000, Brady’s teams have reached 12 wins in nine different seasons and his 12 division titles are an all-time NFL record.
It's also a fait accompli that No. 13 is coming as New England needs just a win and a Jets loss to clinch the AFC East for a seventh consecutive year this week.
Against the Eagles Brady is 4-0, including the win in Super Bowl XXXIX with nine touchdowns and no interceptions in 165 passing attempts.
"It all starts and ends with Brady," Kelly said. "He's a first-ballot Hall of Famer and it's a huge challenge for us to have to go up and defend him because he's running the whole show."
PROTECTING THE BALL
Protecting the ball has always been one of Brady's greatest attributes and the Patriots lead the NFL with 48 so-called clean games (no turnovers) since 2008. New England is 44-4 in those games and the Eagles, after starting out hot, haven't been able to generate a turnover during their three-game skid.
"Two games ago (against Tampa Bay), I told you we had five turnover opportunities, but in the Detroit game we had none," David said. "That's more discouraging. If you have five and don't get five, at least you're in a position to cause and get the turnover. Against Detroit, nothing went well, and we did not have any turnovers or opportunities. They protected the ball well when they ran with it and the quarterback in the pocket protected it well when we were close to him."
Making matters more difficult is that Philadelphia is now dealing with change in the secondary after Nolan Carroll, who has been their best corner this season, went down with a broken ankle in Detroit.
Rookie Eric Rowe understands what he is in for as Carroll's replacement.
"I don't know how I'm going to feel out there this week," he admitted. "I know (Brady's) going to come at me. I'm a rookie cornerback. I know he's going to look my way first and I've got to be ready for it."
The Patriots defense usually finds a way under Belichick and is allowing only 19.3 points per game this season after surrendering 19.6 per contest a year ago. If the New England stop unit finishes under the 20-marker again, it would be for the 10th season since 2001, matching Baltimore for the most consistency over that span.
"They're a very solid defense," Eagles offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur surmised. "They're very fundamental. I think their front seven is very handsy. They get their hands on you. They've always been that way. They kind of throw a net around you."
Despite the Eagles' struggles offensively Belichick went the Lou Holtz route by pumping up the opposition.
"Offensively it's probably as good a group of skill players as I've seen," Belichick said. "They're at least two-deep and more really at some positions on the skill positions - quarterback, running back, tight end, receiver. They have a lot of good players at all those spots. The play multiple guys, they have great depth there and they keep bringing them at you."
Sam Bradford has been able to practice this week and should play Sunday barring an unforseen setback after missing the prior two contests with concussion and shoulder issues.
"I feel much better than I did at this point last week," Bradford said. "I'm much more comfortable out there with what I've been able to do on the field. It's starting to feel good."
Despite their current funk, the Eagles remain relevant in the weak NFC East with Washington and the New York Giants just one-game north of Philly and Bradford realizes he has a chance to save the day.
"The good news is we're only a game back in our division," Bradford said. "The season hasn't gone the way we hoped for. That being said, we're still in a position to get on a roll here and make the playoffs."
973espn.com prediction: It's not who you play but when you play them and the Eagles are getting New England at the best possible time. That said, even without Gronkowski, Edelman and Lewis, New England was installed as a nearly two-touchdown favorite and that tells you something. Patriots 24, Eagles 14.
-John McMullen covers the Eagles and the NFL for 973espn.com. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @JFMcMullen.