By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Let’s start right here: If the Patriots play to their capabilities, if they execute efficiently, and if they exhibit the same level of hyper-focus that they showed during their 11-1 finish to the season, then they absolutely will be headed to Houston for Super Bowl LI. There is no doubt about that.
That’s not over-confidence. It’s not putting the cart before the horse. It is just fact. The Patriots are the best team in the AFC.
The problem is, whenever anything in sports seems like a 100 percent guarantee, that’s when your antennae should go up. If sports were that easy to predict, we’d all be millionaires. And we certainly would have stopped watching long ago.
I recognize that it may seem foolish to write that the Patriots may lose to the lowly Houston Texans — really, I do. But we all felt similarly about the Patriots’ chances back in 2010, when they were also 14-2 and they were welcoming the Jets to Foxboro for a repeat of the 45-3 beatdown that took place in that very spot just a month earlier.
You know, of course, that the Jets prevailed that night, soundly beating the Patriots 28-21 and stunning all of New England.
After that shocker, I wrote this:
“Leading up to the game, there were millions of angles covered, but none of them involved Tom Brady playing so poorly. Perhaps next time, even if he’s the league MVP, even if he’s just completed one of his most brilliant seasons, even if he’s playing a team against which he just scored 45 points a month earlier, maybe we’ll see it coming. Maybe.”
It’s not difficult to find the parallels.
While there are at least a dozen reasons to believe history won’t be repeated six years later, it’s still likely a worthwhile exercise to go back and see what went wrong for that supposed juggernaut and how they lost to an inferior Jets team.
The Incident: Tom Brady Threw A Pick
Of all the accomplishments Tom Brady’s experienced in his career, his stretch of 335 passes thrown without an interception ranks right up near the top. Unfortunately for Tom, he didn’t snap that streak in a Week 17 blowout over Miami, and he did snap it early in the postseason game against the Jets.
It came on, of all things, a screen pass on first-and-10 from the Jets’ 28, intended for BenJarvus Green-Ellis in a 0-0 game on the Patriots’ first offensive drive. But David Harris stepped in front of the pass, picked it off, and turned it upfield for 58 yards.
The Jets ended up missing a chip-shot field goal on the ensuing drive, but the damage was done.
Brady, who had thrown 36 touchdowns and just four interceptions all year en route to becoming the first ever unanimous MVP in league history, was not his normal self. He appeared to be uncomfortable all night, hesitant to try to fit balls into tight windows over the middle of the field for the rest of the game. He’d cock his arm to pass, but would pause, pull it back, and look elsewhere. It was tough to watch, and it led to him taking five sacks, the most sacks he had taken since … Super Bowl XLII.
Here’s just one example: Third-and-13, trailing by 10 points, needing two scores to tie, Brady had a wide-open Wes Welker for a reasonable gain that would have set up a field goal.
Brady decided to pull that ball in and bounce around the pocket for several seconds before throwing incomplete. Considering they were out of field-goal range, they went for it on fourth down. They failed.
All year long, Brady was the best player on the best team. But one early mistake made him a different player, and that was as big a reason as any that the Patriots’ season was cut short.
Likelihood Of A Repeat: Possible, Not At All Likely
Tom Brady is older, and he is wiser. He knows who he is and what he can do, and he’s much less susceptible to ever experiencing a drain of confidence on a football field.
We’ve got evidence of this. Super Bowl XLIX, late first quarter, third down from the Seattle 10-yard line in a 0-0 game. Brady throws wildly off his back foot to the middle of the field. Jeremy Lane is there to make the easiest interception of his life, taking points off the board for New England. Later in the third quarter, Brady tries to complete a pass over the middle Rob Gronkowski, but Bobby Wagner reads him like a book. The linebacker picks it off, and the Seahawks quickly stretch a three-point lead into a 10-point lead.
After that, of course, we know what Brady did. He went 16-for-20 for 158 and two touchdowns after that second pick, storming the Patriots back and earning Super Bowl MVP honors.
So, what may have been a weakness back in 2010 appeared to have been flushed from the system by 2014. Presumably, even after a record-setting TD-to-INT ratio and even facing one of the best pass defenses in the NFL, losing confidence shouldn’t be a problem for the 39-year-old Brady.
The Incident: Two Of Brady’s Most Important Receivers Were Rookies — And They Played Like It
This game took place before Rob Gronkowski was ROB GRONKOWSKI and before Aaron Hernandez was … well … before he had established himself in the NFL as a unique receiving tight end in a dynamic offense. Yeah. Before Hernandez was known for that.
Anyway, Hernandez and Gronkowski were Brady’s third and fourth most reliable targets all year, behind Wes Welker and Deion Branch. Hernandez caught 45 passes for 563 yards and six touchdowns, while Gronkowski caught 42 passes for 546 yards and an impressive 10 touchdowns. Those 16 touchdowns accounted for 43 percent of the Patriots’ receiving touchdowns that season. They were very important figures.
But in their playoff debuts, neither looked very good at all. Hernandez was playing through a hip injury that eventually required surgery, but for the most part, both players looked like … rookies. Hernandez had just one catch for four yards, and that’s after catching nine passes for 152 yards and a touchdown in the two prior meetings with the Jets that year. Gronkowski did pick up 65 yards on his four catches, but on two separate third downs in the second quarter, Brady threw to Gronkowski. Both times, the passes fell incomplete, and Gronkowski appeared to have run the wrong route on at least one of them. The two were not on the same page as often as they needed to be … and one of the ensuing punts turned into an utter disaster. (More on that shortly.)
Likelihood Of A Repeat: Non-existent
The only inexperienced contributor on offense is Malcolm Mitchell, who would probably rank fifth or sixth on the importance scale in terms of weapons. Tight end Matt Lengel would qualify as inexperienced, too, but he was targeted three times all year.
The rest of the men who will touch the ball all have a sufficient amount of experience in the NFL, so nothing they see on Saturday night should throw them off their game.
The Incident: Oh My Goodness, A Terrible, Awful, Horrible Fake Punt
The Jets were leading 7-3 late in the second quarter. The game was plenty close. The Patriots were going to punt. It was no big deal. The game would just head to halftime with a 7-3 score.
But then, inexplicably, Jake Ingram snapped the ball to Patrick Chung. Maybe it would have worked, who knows? But we never will know, because Chung fumbled the snap and then scrambled around like a chicken with his head cut off as the Jets swarmed. He was tackled for a one-yard loss, and the Jets were gifted great field position.
It took the Jets all of four plays to get into the end zone and score and stretch that lead to 11 points.
What’s most confounding about this play is that even if it were successful, it only would have given the Patriots a first down near midfield with a minute to go in the half. It wasn’t going to guarantee them any points, and the likelihood of Mark Sanchez leading a long scoring drive in such short time was minimal.
This play was so, so bad.
Likelihood Of A Repeat: Non-Existent
This just is not going to happen again. It was simply a rare moment in history. How it happened in the first place is anybody’s guess, but it’s safe to believe it will not ever be repeated so long as Bill Belichick is in charge.
Bill might let the urge to call upon Nate Ebner for a mortar kick get the best of him sometimes, but last year might have flushed that from his system.
The Incident: Wes Welker Was Benched For A Series For Making Jokes About Rex Ryan’s Foot Fetish
Yeah. That did happen.
While the impact of a one-series suspension has been debated, you should remember that the Brady interception was thrown on that series. If Welker had been out on the field, it’s likely the play calls would have been different. And considering Welker was the Patriots’ leading receiver by drastic margins, one could even believe that the drive might have even led to some points. Welker did catch 13 balls for 118 yards and two touchdowns in the two games against the Jets during the regular season.
Bart Scott also hinted that Welker’s jokes might have worked to fire up the Jets a bit.
“I think [the Patriots] bought into our game — and we’re good at our game,” Scott said. “We can talk and play. I don’t think they can.”
Likelihood Of A Repeat: Umm …. No
Not much more needs to be said. Which is too bad, based on the creativity of the fans. That one fella kissing the mannequin’s feet is probably surprised.
The Incident: Brady’s Receiving Corps Was Thin
Wes Welker was Brady’s No. 1 guy, but with Hernandez and Gronkowski not performing, Brady was left without the best receiving options. Deion Branch did all he could, making five catches for 59 yards and a score, but he was targeted 10 times. As a picture of Brady’s situation, look at the five targets for Alge Crumpler; the 33-year-old was playing in what would prove to be his final NFL game, he had not been targeted more than twice in any game all season, and he let one of those targets clank off his hands in the end zone.
It was not an ideal night for the Patriots offense.
Likelihood Of A Repeat: Won’t Happen … Barring Injury
So long as Julian Edelman and Martellus Bennett avoid early injuries, this won’t be a problem. But if one (or, in a worst-case scenario, both) has to miss time during the game, it could throw a wrench into the situation.
In 2010, Welker accounted for a team-high 24.5 percent of targets.
In 2016, Edelman accounted for a team-high 29.1 percent of targets.
In 2010, the trio of Welker, Branch and Hernandez accounted for 52 percent of targets.
In 2016, the trio of Edelman, James White and Bennett accounted for 58 percent of targets.
So, as you can see, the receiving corps is still top-heavy in the eyes of Brady. The difference, however, is in who follows those players on the depth chart. Back in 2010, after the aforementioned trio plus Gronkowski, the most-targeted receivers were Brandon Tate, Danny Woodhead and BenJarvus Green-Ellis. This year, behind the aforementioned trio, it’s Chris Hogan, Malcolm Mitchell, Danny Amendola and Dion Lewis.
The Patriots are much better-equipped offensively this time around, but if Houston were to make an impact defensively, it would come when either Edelman or Bennett gets sidelined.
The Incident: Brady Was Injured
We didn’t know it at the time, but it turns out that Brady was playing the 2010 season with a stress fracture in his foot. According to reports, it was “no trivial injury” and became “very, very painful in the middle of the season.”
Likelihood Of A Repeat: Maybe?
Here’s the thing: Tom Brady dealt with this injury and still played brilliantly all year long in 2010. Now in 2016, he’s been likewise brilliant. But he’s also been missing practices ever since absorbing that hit to the thigh and knee from Kam Chancellor in the middle of November.
And here’s a line from Albert Breer’s report back in 2010: “The injury is the reason Brady missed Wednesday practices every week starting Nov. 7 through the end of the regular season and was limited on various other occasions.”
The Patriots being the Patriots, we’ll never officially know how severe Brady’s injury this season has been. Jeff Howe reported in late November that Brady had been receiving “round the clock” treatment on the injury.
Nobody’s been better at keeping injuries hidden from the public than Brady, who played with broken ribs and a broken finger through the 2009 season. And nobody’s been better at performing at such a level that it makes the idea of a serious injury seem preposterous. So it’s not out of the question that he may be doing the same now.
The Incident: The Jets Were Familiar With The Patriots … And They Hated The Patriots
For all of the X’s and O’s and strategies and play calls and execution, there’s sometimes just no accounting for some good old-fashioned motivation. And these 2010 Jets were miffed.
Obviously, Bart Scott’s “Can’t Wait!” interview summed things up succinctly, but the Jets as a group weren’t shy about telling everybody how much it meant to them to be able to go into Foxboro and end the season of the Patriots, whom they considered to be smug and arrogant and overrated.
“I think [the Patriots] were a little bit cocky, thinking they could come in with the same game plan,” Scott said in the locker room after the game. “We showed them that we can make adjustments. We did it the first game. Check. In the second game, they came in and beat us. Check. We came in when it counted the most. Check — checkmate.”
Braylon Edwards admitted that the 45-3 beatdown delivered by the Patriots was fresh in his mind for the postseason rematch.
“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t,” said Edwards. “They beat the brakes off of us. There is no way around that, and it hurts. … They embarrassed us … and we put that in the back of our minds tonight.”
So, you take that motivation, you add in the standard level of animosity that brews in a divisional rival, and you take a guy like Rex Ryan who’s the perfect coach to rile them all up, and you get an emotional performance on the road in a big spot.
Likelihood Of A Repeat: Not Quite Severe
Yes, the Patriots technically played the Texans this year. But that was Week 3, which was a very long time ago. And Jacoby Brissett was the Patriots’ starting quarterback. And Jamie Collins made the big defensive play for the Patriots. And Brock Osweiler hadn’t lost (and then regained) his job yet.
And yes, the Texans are very familiar with the Patriots. Head coach Bill O’Brien, defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel, offensive coordinator George Godsey, special teams coordinator Larry Izzo, linebackers coach Mike Vrabel and defensive tackle Vince Wilfork all came from the Patriots. But none would be considered to have animosity toward the organization.
It’d be hard for Wilfork to harbor much rage for the owner who has smooched him so many times over the years. So this won’t be quite the factor that it was back in 2010.
The Incident: The Defense Broke Down
Late in the third quarter, the Patriots were on the comeback trail. Crumpler caught a short touchdown, Sammy Morris successfully made the two-point conversion, and the Patriots had cut the Jets’ lead to 14-11 with plenty of time left to play. It was a ballgame again.
And then, suddenly, it was not.
Facing a second-and-6 from the New York 29-yard line on the first play of the fourth quarter, Mark Sanchez threw a simple 6-yard pass over the middle to Jerricho Cotchery. What happened next for the Patriots was an unmitigated disaster.
Not only was Cotchery uncovered as he caught the ball in full stride, but he had room to run. Eventually Devin McCourty approached to make the tackle; he missed. Brandon Spikes tried to catch Cotchery from behind; he failed. Dustin Keller blocked James Sanders to the turf; Cotchery hurdled the Pats’ safety and continued on his way.
By the time Brandon Meriweather finally caught up to Cotchery to knock him out of bounds, the damage had been done: 58 yards, and a first-and-10 from the New England 13. Three plays later, the Jets were in the end zone, scoring a game-swinging touchdown that stretched the lead back to 10 and sunk the sails of the home team.
Likelihood Of A Repeat: Certainly Possible
Of all the things that went wrong for the Patriots back in 2010, this would seem to be the area where they’re most susceptible in 2016.
Of course, the Patriots’ defense had an excellent year, allowing a staggeringly low 15.6 points per game and allowing just 6.8 passing yards per attempt during the regular season. It’s a very good defense … but it’s not a perfect unit.
For evidence, look only as far back as Week 17, when a blown coverage led to Matt Moore (Matt Moore!) hitting Kenny Stills for a much-too-easy 25-yard touchdown. A blown coverage at the end of the first half vs. Seattle allowed Doug Baldwin to score one of his three touchdowns vs. New England.
The Patriots were also torched for five catches, 109 yards and a touchdown by Quincy Enunwa this year in what was by far the receiver’s best performance of the year. They failed to contain C.J. Prosise, who caught seven balls out of the Seattle backfield for 87 yards. LeSean McCoy had 108 yards from scrimmage and a touchdown in a win over the Patriots. Larry Fitzgerald is in his own class, obviously, but he did also torch the Patriots’ defense for 81 yards and two touchdowns on eight catches.
So while New England might not be losing as much sleep over the defense as in some recent years, the unit has proven susceptible to occasionally allowing a big play or two. And considering DeAndre Hopkins is a unique threat in the passing game, there is the chance that the Texans manage to flip the field with a game-changing type of play on offense.
You might not want to bet your life savings on Brock Osweiler pulling it off. But you should be aware.
The Incident: “The Drive To Nowhere”
In what was an incredibly uncharacteristic showing from a team that is always so well-coached, the Patriots hurt their own chances of success and in doing so looked like the average team you see every weekend on your television.
Trailing 21-11 with roughly 13 minutes to play, the Patriots began a drive at their own 18-yard line. They then slowly and methodically worked their way down the field, draining more than seven minutes of clock in the process. Brady handed off to either Woodhead or Green-Ellis seven times, rushes that combined to gain just 28 yards. Brady completed two passes for eight yards apiece and another pass that gained nine yards before taking a sack on a second down from the Jets’ 31-yard line. He threw incomplete on third down, and rather than asking Shayne Graham to kick a 52-yard field goal in January, the Patriots elected to go for it. With Darrelle Revis temporarily sidelined with an injury, Brady actually hit Branch right on the hands, past the first-down marker, but the receiver dropped it, leading to a crushing turnover on downs.
The mystified fans inside Gillette Stadium were silent after seeing the Patriots burn 7:45 of clock with nothing to show for it.
Likelihood Of A Repeat: Nope
Well, considering Bill O’Brien was unofficially running the offense that night … it’s more likely that we see Houston do something like this. Josh McDaniels proved in Super Bowl XLIX that he can masterfully call a game when the Patriots trail in the fourth quarter, and he and Brady are operating on a special level together. You’ll never see Brady run such a fruitless drive again.
Back in 2010, nobody gave the Jets a chance to beat the Patriots. After those two teams had met in such a lopsided affair just a month earlier, how could anybody express any level of confidence in the Jets?
As it turned out, we were all proven to have been naive, and we overlooked a few key factors. Namely, we didn’t properly assess a Patriots defense that ranked 30th in pass yards allowed, and we didn’t accurately factor in just how motivated and focused the Jets were going to be when they stepped off the bus.
This time around, in an abundance of caution, if you were to pinpoint where the Patriots might lose this weekend’s football game with the Texans, you might look at their inexperience of playing in games when Brady throws an interception, their reliance on Edelman and Bennett in the event of an injury, and their occasional susceptibility to giving up the big play.
Now, none of those things are likely, and that’s why you see the Patriots opening as 16-point favorites in Vegas. In this instance, the line is most certainly an accurate gauge of how Saturday evening’s showdown should play out in Foxboro.