No Super Bowl comeback this time: Big changes on horizon for Tom Brady, Patriots

MINNEAPOLIS -- This time, there was no comeback.

It was all set up for New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady to produce another dramatic, fourth-quarter, winning drive -- the ball in his hands, 2:21 remaining and a touchdown would win it -- but then it all came crashing down.

And there was Brady, sitting dejectedly on the field at U.S. Bank Stadium after having the ball stripped out of his hands by defensive end Brandon Graham, knowing that a sixth Super Bowl title had slipped out of his grasp if not for a late miracle.

It never came, one last-gasp drive stopped short as Brady and the Patriots met their match in a worthy Philadelphia Eagles squad that never backed down and rolled the dice with success on fourth down in a 41-33 victory Sunday.

"They made one good play at the right time," said Brady, who was 28-of-48 for 505 yards, with three touchdowns.

One of the major disappointments for the Patriots was how they were carved up throughout the game on defense, and an unconventional coaching decision -- to replace starting cornerback Malcolm Butler with Eric Rowe -- will be second-guessed in New England. Butler, the team's Super Bowl XLIX hero, played only on special teams in a move that Bill Belichick said wasn't disciplinary.

"We put the players and game plan out there that we thought would be best, like we always do," Belichick said.

That game plan was to primarily play a "big nickel" defense with three safeties, two cornerbacks, three defensive linemen and three linebackers, and the Patriots were shredded.

"We didn't tackle well, we didn't play well on third down, situational football was terrible," said safety Duron Harmon, one of the team's captains. "They made the plays and we didn't, so that's why they're the champs and we're not."

The Eagles won consistently on third down (10-for-16), with quarterback Nick Foles (28-of-43 for 373 yards, three touchdowns) facing little pressure from the pass rush, and that put all the pressure on Brady and the offense to keep up. They couldn't, and the game ended similarly to both of their Super Bowl losses to the New York Giants (2007, 2011), with Brady and the offense in desperation mode as they ran out of time.

As a final Hail Mary fell incomplete in the end zone, Brady remained on the ground, head bowed, in disappointment.

"It sucks," Brady said. "We had opportunities to take control, we just didn't. We did a great job in the first half. We moved the ball a lot, didn't score a lot of points. We did a better job in the second half, had a chance, but those guys made a play."

The Super Bowl appearance was the eighth in 18 seasons during the Belichick-Brady era. It's the third time the pair has lost, and it comes with potential major changes on the horizon. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels could move on to coach the Indianapolis Colts, and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia seems set to take over the Detroit Lions. Other assistant coaches might also be on the way out.

Then there is the question of the status of Belichick or Brady. In an interview with Westwood One before Super Bowl LII, Brady confirmed his plans to play in 2018, saying, "Yeah, you're gonna see me playing football next year. I don't envision not playing." And ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter reported that Belichick is also expected to be back.

But according to an ESPN The Magazine story, the Patriots dynasty started showing cracks in the aftermath of backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo's trade to the San Francisco 49ers on Oct. 31. It was a deal few saw coming, in part, because the club had been so adamant on keeping him as the heir apparent to Brady. But with Garoppolo's contract expiring at the end of the season, and Brady playing at a high level at 40, things reached a breaking point.

"We probably had, in my opinion, the best quarterback situation in the league for the last -- let's call it 2½ years. It's just not sustainable, given the way that things are set up," Belichick said, referring to the salary cap. "It's definitely not something that we wanted to walk away from, and we rode it out as long as we could."

How that process unfolded created a significant behind-the-scenes strain between owner Robert Kraft, Belichick and Brady, according to the ESPN The Magazine report, that could have a trickle-down effect in the future.

In an interview on NFL Network before the AFC Championship Game, when asked about how important it is keep everyone together for the next few years, Kraft said, "In life, you know, the hardest thing is to surround yourself with quality people, even in a marriage if it's your partner, and then having continuity.

"Life is difficult, especially if you're doing things at a high level. Having continuity, keeping things going. ... That fact that Tommy and Bill Belichick and my family have been together for 18 years; there's a lot of strong-minded people, but when you have something good going, everybody's got to their egos checked in and try to hold it together."

On the Thursday leading up to the Super Bowl, Belichick said there was no quarterback he'd rather have than Brady. And why not?

The two helped engineer a comeback from a 25-point, third-quarter deficit to beat the Atlanta Falcons in the Super Bowl last year. Then, the Patriots raised the external expectations to extreme levels during the offseason by trading a first-round draft pick to the Saints for receiver Brandin Cooks and jumping into the free-agent pool with a five-year, $65 million deal for cornerback Stephon Gilmore.

USA Today predicted they would go 16-0. The buzz became so loud that Brady felt the need to address it in August, saying, "It is really unfair to set expectations. To me, in my mind, it's really a setup."

Belichick, of course, would have none of it. During the team's offseason practices, when asked about a Super Bowl celebration at Kraft's house, he said, "We need to move on to 2017. We've had enough parades, enough celebrations. This team hasn't done anything yet -- none of us have."

The Patriots had one more celebration on opening night. The championship banner was unveiled with Flo Rida's pregame performance creating a Super Bowl-like atmosphere. But the party didn't last long. The Patriots were throttled by the Chiefs 42-27, sparking a whole new set of questions. No longer was the talk about a possible undefeated season, but instead about a defense that was gashed.

After a 33-30 home loss to the Carolina Panthers, the Patriots were 2-2 with obvious flaws.

"It didn't look good at 2-2, and you just keep showing up to work every day," Brady said from the team meeting room in the weeks leading up to Super Bowl LII. "We sit in these chairs and Coach Belichick gets up here and he demands a lot out of us. It's not always great. Sometimes it's pretty average, and you're just trying to get better and get to the point where you can make the fourth quarter of a game and try to play well enough to get yourself into the next one."

The Patriots did that, winning 11 of their final 12 regular-season games.

But, it almost all came crashing down five days before the AFC title game when Brady, on a handoff to running back Rex Burkhead in practice, injured his right throwing hand. Those at the practice said Brady was bleeding badly. He initially feared the worst, as did Kraft, who quickly returned from a trip to Florida to check on Brady.

"Out of all the plays, my season can't end on a handoff in practice," Brady said. There was no ligament, tendon or bone damage, just a sizable cut on the lower part of his palm near the thumb that required 12 stitches.

Unaffected, Brady turned in another vintage performance in the AFC Championship Game that was reflective of his MVP season. Rallying the Patriots from a 10-point deficit early in the fourth quarter, it marked the 54th time in his career he engineered a game-winning performance with the Patriots either tied or trailing in the final quarter.

The Patriots were hoping there would be a 55th, but the Eagles were a worthy foe and deserving champion.

The question now: Will Brady and Belichick recharge this offseason and make another run for a sixth Vince Lombardi Trophy?