MINNEAPOLIS — Not only was the Philadelphia Eagles’ knockout of New England a thrill-a-minute slugfest, it produced some of the biggest calls the Super Bowl has ever seen.
For once, the whistles didn’t go the Patriots’ way, such as Philly’s two second-half touchdowns that survived reviews at the NFL’s league headquarters, including Zach Ertz’s game-winner just before the two-minute warning of the 41-33 thriller.
There was Belichick’s head-scratching decision not to play Super Bowl XLIX star Malcolm Butler on defense against a team that would rack up 41 points and Danny Amendola’s incompletion to Tom “Butterfingers ” Brady on a gadget play that backfired.
“Yeah, I caught it” in practice, Brady said. “Didn’t catch it tonight.”
That was but one of the Patriots’ early stumbles that put them in catch-up mode.
They flubbed a field goal when Stephen Gostkowski’s holder, punter Ryan Allen, mishandled the snap, and Gostkowski was wide left on an extra point, leaving the Patriots trailing by double digits at halftime.
One reason for Philly’s 22-12 halftime lead was game MVP Nick Foles becoming the first quarterback to throw and catch a touchdown pass in the Super Bowl.
Tight end Trey Burton, a college quarterback, had never thrown an NFL pass, and Foles had never caught one until they teamed up on fourth-and-goal from the 1.
It’s not as if the Eagles were perfect. They, too, missed an extra point and also the 2-point conversion on their next touchdown, and coach Doug Pederson’s decision to chase points early on loomed large when Tom Brady put the Patriots ahead 33-32 with his second touchdown strike to Rob Gronkowski with less than 10 minutes remaining.
That’s when the Eagles and offensive coordinator Frank Reich made their best decisions of the game. Foles executed the drive of a lifetime that ended with Ertz diving across the goal line after hauling in an 11-yard catch.
Reminiscent of Jesse James’ score for Pittsburgh against New England that was wiped out on review.
Ertz, whose Super Bowl triumph matched his wife, Julie, who won a world championship in soccer in 2015, lost control as he landed but grabbed the ball. The Eagles and their fans cautiously celebrated while awaiting Al Riveron’s crew in New York, which upheld the score, much to the Patriots’ chagrin.
Amendola, for one, thought it was the right call.
“They called it a catch, three feet down and a football move,” he said. “I call it a catch.”
Soon afterward, Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz made his best call of the game.
Unable to get to Brady all game, the Eagles’ exhausted defenders were finally able to catch their breath during Foles’ 14-play, 75-yard drive that included a fourth down conversion and ate up more than seven minutes of game clock.
“We just couldn’t get off the field on third down or make a play to get the ball back to our offense,” cornerback Stephon Gilmore said.
“We didn’t do a good job of slowing them down,” defensive back Duron Harmon said. “I mean, we didn’t stop them at all. So, that’s exactly why they are the Super Bowl champs and we’re sitting here in second place.”
Maybe if they had Butler in?
“It doesn’t matter,” declared Patriots defensive back Devin McCourty.
Coach Bill Belichick said he played Eric Rowe in place of Butler for strategic, not disciplinary reasons, but he declined to elaborate on his move that surprised his team just before kickoff.
Rowe, himself, said Butler could have certainly helped the Patriots, who became the first team to lose an NFL game with a quarterback throwing for 500 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions.
“Yeah, we could have used anybody,” he said.
Still, Brady was poised for another of his patented Super Bowl comebacks, hitting Gronkowski for 8 yards.
But on second-and-2 from his 33, the Eagles finally got to Brady, denying him a sixth ring and a fifth Super Bowl MVP honor.
Brandon Graham delivered one of the few defensive highlights in the most prolific offensive game in NFL history, beating Shaq Mason off the line, reaching his left hand out and punching the ball out of Brady’s hands for a strip-sack. Rookie Derek Barnett pounced on the loose ball and Eagles fans began celebrating their first title since winning the 1960 NFL championship.
Brady had made the late-game comeback a specialty in winning a record five Super Bowl titles, including last year’s rally from 28-3 down to beat Atlanta in overtime. He also led late game-winning scoring drives to beat the Rams, Carolina and Seattle.
The Eagles showed no sign of slowing Brady down on Sunday as he threw for a playoff-record 505 yards and three touchdowns, carving up the defense at will on a night when the Patriots did not punt once or turn it over until Brady’s late fumble.
“It’s tough to lose these games,” Brady said. But “you can’t win the game if you’re not in the game.”
And Brady and Belichick have been to eight of them.
Eight’s enough, maybe.
Coordinators Matt Patricia and Josh McDaniels are ready for their own head coaching gigs.
The previous time the Patriots played Philadelphia in the Super Bowl, they hoisted their third trophy in four years. Then, they lost both coordinators and wouldn’t hoist another one for a decade.
Then, there’s the meeting with Brady, coach Bill Belichick and owner Robert Kraft to smooth things over after a reported falling-out following the trade of backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo to the San Francisco 49ers.
Oh, and Gronkowski hinted that he’d give retirement some thought, too.