MINNEAPOLIS — Before we get into all the strangeness that went down inside U.S. Bank Stadium — Malcolm Butler being benched and Jordan Richards getting Zach Ertz duty really happened — that sort of encapsulated a strange season for the Patriots and resulted in the Eagles beating them 41-33 in another epic Super Bowl, let's not lose sight of one thing:
Tom Brady had the ball in his hand with a chance to win the game with 2:16 left to play.
Just to be clear: the greatest winner in football history was in the exact spot that made him a living legend.
If you told Patriots fans — heck, even the coaches and Brady's teammates — before the game if they would be ok with the above scenario, 99 out of 100 of them would say, "The GOAT? Yeah, sure, dude, we-ah do I sign up for that dream situation. Game ovah."
It's just this time, for about the first time ever on this grand a stage, the other team made the play to win the game when Brandon Graham beat Patriot standout guard Shaq Mason to swipe the ball from Brady's hands and the ball bounced up to Eagles end Derek Barnett.
It was an unfamiliar feeling for Patriots fans, to be sure. They lived through Eli Manning driving the field to beat them after Brady's heroics, but this was something different. And this will be tough to get over.
But, in the end, it was just football. The Eagles made the type of plays the Patriots have made so many times over the years. And so the Eagles with journeyman backup Nick Foles have won their first Super Bowl, while the Patriots will try to get over the fact they didn't win their sixth.
The question that will now be asked, and it has already been bandied angrily about in homes throughout frigid New England is: could this loss have been avoided?
The "what ifs" will be replayed all offseason.
What if the Patriots forced the ball to Rob Gronkowski more prior to the second half? What if all those deceptive plays (a throw to Brady?) were junked and they played the Eagles straight up and with their hurry-up offense like the Giants did so well in Week 15?
Would the Patriots have had more than 12 points at halftime and cut into the Eagles' 10-point advantage at the break?
What about on defense, and the biggest second-guess of them all: Bill Belichick's decision not to play Butler on one single defensive snap?
The Butler decision had a trickle-down effect. The Patriots thought Patrick Chung was the best matchup against slippery Eagles slot receiver Nelson Agholor. There's definitely football merits in that — Chung could be physical with Agholor on both his routes and designed runs — but that meant Chung would largely be taken off the coverage where he excels against a top tight end like Ertz. And it would be left to someone else: the much-maligned Richards, and a special teams ace in Johnson Bademosi. With Stephon Gilmore on Torrey Smith and Eric Rowe on Alshon Jeffrey to start (those assignments would finally be switched once Jeffrey got the best of Rowe) the Patriots didn't have many coverage options with Butler apparently in the doghouse (Belichick said after the game the decision was strictly football-related and not for discipline).
The bottom line was that a Patriots defense that lacked big-time playmakers once Dont'a Hightower was lost for the season, lost the Super Bowl while one of their most proven big-game players watched the entire game (minus one special teams snap) from the sidelines behind his clear face shield.
Could Butler have helped get just one more stop? Could putting Chung on Ertz from the beginning helped keep the Eagles from converting 67 percent of their third- and fourth-down situations, including nine that went for at least 11 yards and two touchdowns?
To be honest, it's hard to disagree with any of those second-guesses.
Belichick to blame?
But to do that, you have to conclude that William Stephen Belichick screwed up this game. The man who has won the most Super Bowls as a head coach (five) and who has devised some of the game's most brilliant game plans, just set a course for disaster ... for what, to satisfy his ego and to show how smart he was?
I'm sorry, I just can't go there right now, even if Belichick gave some voice to that train of thought.
“In the end,” Belichick said after the epic shootout, “we just couldn’t quite make enough plays, and that was all on me.”
Those that follow this team know he says that sort of thing after every big loss. When the Patriots win, the players were responsible. If they lose, it's on Belichick.
The Patriots coaches did not spend two weeks getting ready for this game and just went with a bad gameplan. That's not how this works.
Every play they called in this game, every matchup they decided on, was a group effort from start to finish. They believed all of this was a winning strategy and it just didn't work, either because the Patriots players who had executed so well the second half of the season didn't get the job done, or the Eagles were just more talented.
As for the Butler situation, I'm not calling Belichick out on that yet. There has to be more to this story, which is sure to leak at some point because Fort Foxborough has become a geyser of leaks this season.
As readers of BSJ know, I have been saying the Butler situation was threatening to come to a head at some point. I just figured it would have happened in December, and not on Super Bowl Sunday. But it did, and that's where we are. I still have a hard time believing that Belichick didn't have a very good reason for benching Butler. Maybe I'm completely wrong, but I'm not willing to throw out a Hall of Fame worth of history and say Belichick did something rash. He always has his reasons, and they are almost well thought out.
A fitting end to a strange season
I say almost because this was a fitting end to one of the strangest seasons in recent Patriots history.
It started with the team's contract squabble with Butler, which led to the Patriots giving the unproven Gilmore a megabucks contract that had reverberations in the locker room. It featured an underwhelming training camp, which led to a blowout home loss to the Chiefs in the opener, and to the team dropping their first two home games.
There was the undercurrent of tension between Brady and Belichick, which manifested itself in Brady's body guru Alex Guerrero having his team privileges revoked. But sources have continued to say the issues between the power couple persist to this day.
There's the specter that all three coordinators could be elsewhere after this season, and more coaching departures could follow.
The Patriots also decided to blowup "the league's best quarterback situation" with not one but two trades of young signal callers. The deal for Jimmy Garoppolo still doesn't make sense no matter how many times the Krafts say they weren't involved (but Brady can decide on his own when he hangs them up) because only a few minor cap moves (anyone still clamoring for Martellus Bennett, Dwayne Allen, Alan Branch and David Harris to return?) were needed to allow the Patriots to open the bidding on Garoppolo and trade him under the tag like Matt Cassel for more than that pittance of a second-round pick.
And then the season ended with Butler on the sidelines in one final squabble, Gronkowski saying he's going to evaluate his future "for sure" (sounds like someone didn't like his big payday tied to incentives), Brady saying he "certainly hopes" to be back, and both current and former Patriots favoriting an Instagram post by Brandon Browner that said Belichick's pride divided the locker room pregame and cost the team the game.
Strange times, indeed, for the Patriots who undoubtedly are embarking on one of the most uncertain offseasons in recent team history.
But just remember, the Patriots were exactly where they wanted to be with the Super Bowl in doubt.
Two minutes could have changed everything.
Two minutes did change everything, just for the other team and another city this time.
That happens. That's football.