The wave is euphoric at first. An energized NFL team scripts an aggressive offensive attack, and your team has a sizable first-half lead. But, wait — the best quarterback of all time is on the other side and he owns 54 fourth-quarter comebacks and the tide can turn quickly.
“You’re free-wheeling because you don’t know if you’ll be in the game, so you’re shooting your gun,” said one NFC coordinator, explaining the common psyche for coaches against elite teams such as the New England Patriots. “Then it’s like, ‘Oh s—, we’re up.’ It can change you and you get conservative.”
By the time you figure out what has happened, quarterback Tom Brady is removing confetti from his hair and coach Bill Belichick looks unamused by another Lombardi trophy he just won.
As the Philadelphia Eagles prepare for the Patriots’ textbook situational football in Super Bowl LII on Sunday at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, they can apply lessons learned from the Atlanta Falcons and Jacksonville Jaguars, who held — and lost — combined leads of 35 points over New England in the last two playoffs.
ESPN spoke with several NFL players and coaches to build consensus on the best ways to play with a lead against the Patriots, who force opponents to play nearly flawless football for 60 minutes.
This is the anti-flop game plan, which is far easier to discuss than actually execute.
‘Don’t look down’
New York Jets quarterback Josh McCown knew extending a 14-0 lead on New England in Week 6 would require a flurry of playmaking. Brady would pump out that no-huddle at the right times to get the game into the 20s by the third quarter.
Offensive balance is delicate in these situations, McCown said, because the “prudent thing” is to run the ball and chew clock, but aggressive passing got them the lead.
McCown told himself: “Don’t look down.”
“If you’re flying and going great, stay on it. Don’t look back,” McCown said. “When they push back, push back again. Go back-and-forth a little bit. You can get plays on them. The question is, can you do it consistently?”
The plan didn’t work, but it might have if officials didn’t rule Austin Seferian-Jenkins‘ third-quarter touchdown a fumble, which turned out to be the difference in a 24-17 Patriots win.
The losses suffered by the Jets and Jaguars accentuated a truism when it comes to beating the Patriots: Your point total is never enough.
“You have to score more than 20 points to have a chance,” one NFL coach said. “In the four-minute drill, are you confident enough in your quarterback for him to make simple throws with the game on the line?”
The Patriots run a healthy dose of man coverage, which might tempt quarterback Nick Foles to press the “P” button on his RPO (run-pass option) calls. Downfield gains are available. And the Patriots’ defensive front “doesn’t scare you,” one coach said.
The last team to defeat the Patriots with Brady in the lineup while scoring fewer than 20 points was the 2014 Buffalo Bills in a 17-9 win in Week 17.
‘Stick to the game plan’
With a combination of ascending young players on rookie contracts and productive free-agent signings, Jacksonville’s loaded defense was ready for its defining moment.
It held the Patriots to 99 yards on the first four drives of the AFC title game. Despite the Patriots’ 85-yard touchdown drive to close out the half, Jacksonville felt in control and shouldn’t have changed its man coverages, cornerback A.J. Bouye said from the Pro Bowl last week.
But Bouye believes the Jaguars got “too conservative” with zone coverages despite the Patriots making minimal halftime adjustments.
“Just stick to the game plan. Don’t overthink it. Don’t do something different. Just go out there and play ball,” Bouye said. “When you’re out there chasing stuff, that’s when things happen. Whatever calls are working for you, keep it going. If you feel you’re better in that position across the board and feel you have better matchups, just stay on it. No need to get soft. Just keep your foot on the pedal.”
Those who have coached against New England say the halftime adjustment wizardry can be overplayed. Belichick will have his wrinkles, to be sure, but they aren’t wild swings. As one coach said, think sprinkling in more zone defense in the right situation.
But there’s always something coming from the Patriots, and the biggest surprise is when.
“They will have something new for you in a game, and if you can’t figure out what the new thing is, they will stay with it the rest of the day,” one longtime NFL coach said. “On offense, they might have a separate sheet of plays that the OC [Josh McDaniels] will have in the second half and say, ‘We’ve got these ready, and it’s nothing we saw in the first half.'”
Tackle in bounds
Rarely does Brady completely strike out with his up-tempo offense over four quarters. He knows how to get the Patriots into correct plays and disguise looks from various formations. (For example: A “21” base package with a fullback and tight end turning into a spread-pass play for running back James White.)
That’s why it’s crucial to extend length-of-field scoring drives into the four-or-five-minute range instead of two.
Play your coverage, mix in some timely blitz pressure to get him off schedule, but always be mindful of the clock against Brady’s no-huddle.
“Make him complete it inside so you can tackle it, make sure the clock is moving,” one AFC coordinator said. “If you’re playing and you need a touchdown, you’re playing everything like it’s third down — ‘I’ve got to win four third downs in a row.’ And you go from there.”
If the Patriots get at least 80 plays, the coordinator said, “you’re probably going home with an L.” Only a few turnovers and a lengthy second-half drive from your offense can combat that.
Stop worrying about the score
Steelers left tackle Alejandro Villanueva said he’s still amazed that fans, and even some teams, view football through what he calls a “timeline perspective”: That winning at a certain time helps you finish the game.
The Patriots pounce on that mentality.
“They are squeezing points anywhere in those four quarters to win the game,” Villanueva said. “Getting the early lead on the Patriots I don’t think matters at all. It’s about beating them consistently for four quarters. Maybe [it’s] the psychology with some teams — they are really hung up on that fact, that you can get up early on them, now they are going to make some adjustments, and toward the end, when you think you have the game, they are going to steal it from you.”
Either way, the theft is most frustrating when the Patriots beat you at your own game of fundamentals. As one coordinator said, the Patriots “really aren’t doing anything exotic.”
“They just do what they do so darn well,” he said. “Better than everyone else.”
Mix coverages and ‘protect the spot’
Brady can dissect a zone with his arm if he sees it too often. But his handoffs can hurt worse.
“Can’t play nickel the whole game or they will run it up your ass,” one coach said.
When viable options seem scarce, do what the New York Giants did in two Super Bowl wins: hit Brady, preferably up the middle.
This is where the Eagles, with six talented linemen led by Fletcher Cox, might find success against a Patriots line that many coaches agree is one of the worst of the Belichick era from an individual talent standpoint.
“Protect the spot. He’s not going very far from where he’s going to set up [in the pocket],” the coach said. “He short-sets the thing. If you can push the middle of the pocket in his lap, no quarterback likes that. You can maybe accomplish that with line stunts.”