PHILADELPHIA — In the buildup to the Week 12 Eagles-Patriots game, TE Rob Gronkowski had emerged as New England's new star and Tom Brady's favorite target. Combined with Aaron Hernandez, this was an offense that had been going through its two second-year tight ends. Or maybe, that's what Brady wanted everyone to think.
Just when we forgot about WRs Deion Branch and Wes Welker and RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis, the Patriots decided to remind the league that the offense is more than just a pair of talented tight ends in a 38-20 win over the Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field. The offense got all three players involved as they dissected an Eagles defense that was coming off its best effort of the season in Week 11's win over the Giants with surgical precision.
In the first half, the Patriots used Green-Ellis to attack the Eagles' nickel defense and slow down the pass rush that harassed Brady on the first two possessions, and he produced 43 rushing yards and two TDs as New England took a 24-13 lead.
From there, it was bombs away to the receivers. Branch had six catches for 125 yards and Welker went 8-115-2, the first time this season that both players went over 100 yards in the same game.
"That's how it needs to be. You need to run it, you have to throw it to everybody, and you gotta keep them off balance," Brady said afterward. "I thought we did a good job today of maximizing all the guys out there who are playing offense."
Welker had failed to produce more than 46 receiving yards in four of his last five games. Branch hadn't hauled in more than 70 yards since Week Five. But with the focus on the tight ends, Brady went to the receivers, who enjoyed oodles of green grass thanks to the Eagles' porous secondary.
That doesn't mean the tight ends didn't factor into the game: Gronkowski had four catches for 59 yards and his 11th touchdown, and Hernandez added six receptions for 62 yards.
When every Patriots offensive weapon gets involved, it becomes difficult for a defense to stop them. The Steelers, in Week Eight, and the Giants, in Week Nine, were able to shut down the running game, and to some extent, the wide receivers, leaving the tight ends as Brady's only options.
To counter that in this game, the Patriots threw the ball downfield, adding the vertical passing game that was missing earlier in the season. Tiquan Underwood dropped what would have been a long reception, and both Branch and Welker had receptions longer than 40 yards.
Once they loosened the defense vertically, the Patriots ran the no-huddle offense to perfection, using five-receiver formations to get the Eagles' defense playing horizontally and executing the short passing game they're famous for.
"I think we have a lot of different spreads out there and it is hard to cover," Hernandez said of the no-huddle. "I like the offense because we can see what the defense is doing more because the defense cannot disguise it really well."
An easy schedule looms for the Patriots, with only one game remaining against a team with a record over .500 — the Broncos in Week 15. Even though things looked to be headed in the wrong direction, the Pats are still in the hunt for the top seed and homefield advantage in the AFC playoffs.
It was a game that served as a reminder to never count out a Brady offense.