PHILADELPHIA — The Super Bowl LII rematch wound up looking a lot more like Super Bowl LIII.
After combining for nine touchdowns and one punt in their championship showdown two years ago in Minneapolis, the New England Patriots and Philadelphia Eagles managed just two total touchdowns and a whopping 16 punts (eight per team) Sunday in a 17-10 Patriots victory at Lincoln Financial Field.
As is necessary when the offense struggles to produce, New England leaned on characteristically excellent defense — Philadelphia didn’t score on its final 10 possessions — and a masterful showing by rookie punter Jake Bailey. With the help of superstar gunners Matthew Slater and Justin Bethel, Bailey pinned the Eagles inside their 6-yard line on three of his eight punts and at their own 12 on two others.
“I think my confidence has developed in practice,” Bailey said after the game. “Just going out there every day and trying to do my best there. What happens in the game is what I try to do in practice, so the game is just second nature at this point.”
The Patriots’ offense opened the second half with a 10-play, 84-yard touchdown drive but had difficulty moving the ball thereafter, ending the games with six consecutive punts. The Eagles began the drives following those punts at their own 19-, 3-, 20-, 12-, 6- and 12-yard lines, with Bailey’s final three boots traveling 54, 55 and 54 yards.
It was a performance reminiscent of the one Bailey’s predecessor Ryan Allen put on in New England’s latest Super Bowl appearance. Allen repeatedly planted punts near the Los Angeles Rams’ goal line, and that edge in field position helped the Patriots win 13-3 in what proved to be Allen’s final game with the team.
“He’s really played well for us this entire season,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said of Bailey, who had little trouble beating out Allen in training camp after being drafted in the fifth round this spring. “He’s been so valuable to this team, and he proved it out there (Sunday). … He’s been great for us.”
Philadelphia punt returner Boston Scott finished the game with just 13 total return yards — a testament to Bailey’s booming leg and the coverage talents of Slater and Bethel, who formed the NFL’s most formidable gunner duo when Bethel signed with New England last month.
In the three games since the three-time Pro Bowler came aboard, opposing returners have totaled 22 yards on six runbacks (3.7 yards per) and muffed two punts.
“You can’t stop both of us,” Bethel said of himself and Slater, who’s made seven Pro Bowls as a special teamer. “That’s the way that we look at it. We figure if you’ve got one of us, the other one’s going to be free.”
“The whole punt team is full of All-Stars,” Bailey added, also mentioning Nate Ebner, Jonathan Jones and long snapper Joe Cardona. “It makes it fun to celebrate with those guys. … It helps when I have people to lean on, and they’re doing a great job.”
Back in 2016, Belichick famously referred to Rams punter Johnny Hekker as a “weapon.” Bailey isn’t yet in Hekker’s class at this point in his career, but one could use that same word to describe the Patriots’ punt team as a whole, as safety Devin McCourty did Sunday night.
“Jake’s a rookie, but the way he’s been punting the ball all year is awesome,” McCourty said. “And we’ve got two of the best (coverage) guys. … As soon as we signed (Bethel), we were like, ‘Dang, we’ve got Slate and Bethel on the team?’ So we have to continue to use that as a weapon and understand how good those guys are, and they’ve got to just go and do that each week. Because when you’re talented like that, the team’s going to lean on you to do that.”
Thumbnail photo via Mark Konezny/USA TODAY Sports Images