By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Based on the way the sports world has reacted to the Patriots’ Week 10 loss in Tennessee, you’d think that this was the first Patriots loss since George W. Bush was in office.
The reality, though, is that the Patriots do actually lose in the regular season. Every year, but for one, in fact. During the first stretch (2001-04) of three Super Bowl appearances in four years, the Patriots lost an average of four games per season. During the most recent stretch of three Super Bowl appearances in four years (2014-17), the Patriots lost an average of three games per year. In the time between those runs, the Patriots averaged four losses per year.
And as they now sit at 7-3, the Patriots are looking at a realistic record of 11-5, or 12-4 if they really excel during the season’s most critical moment. So what you’ll most likely have by season’s end is a team that more or less finishes where it almost always does.
Nevertheless, the manner in which they lost this game in Tennessee has led to the hysteria and the grand proclamations about Tom Brady suddenly being too old (as recently as Saturday, nobody was saying that) and the Patriots being D-O-O-M-E-D doomed for the year. It’s all over, they’re too awful, wrap it up, put a bow on it, season, over, now.
It’s a bit much. And we’re going to get two full weeks of it.
For one, there’s this false narrative that the Patriots only lose ugly games like that in the first part of the season, not in the latter part of the season. Do folks not remember … last year? The Patriots traveled to Miami on a Monday night and entered the fourth quarter trailing 27-10. They were never in that game at all, as the 5-7 Dolphins had their way with the eventual AFC representative in Super Bowl LII.
The 2015 Patriots famously lost in Week 13 to the 4-7 Eagles, then again in Week 16 to the Jets, then AGAIN in Week 17 to the 5-10 Dolphins. While we remember that team for failing to reach the Super Bowl, the 2015 Patriots did come just two points shy of forcing overtime in the AFC title game. It’s not as if that team was a disaster.
The 2014 Patriots got carved up by Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay in Week 13. That team went on to win the Super Bowl.
The 2013 team lost two road games after Week 10, but still made the conference championship. The 2012 team lost convincingly at home against San Francisco in mid-December, but still reached the AFC title game. The 2011 team reached the Super Bowl despite an early November loss, at home, to the Giants.
You get the picture. Yes, it was ugly, yes it was November, yes everything went wrong. But the reaction to this game has been over-the-top. To say the least.
Alas, the dud in Tennessee is all we have to chew on for the next two weeks in New England, as the team takes a rest on its well-earned bye week. With all of that in mind, let’s take a look at the coach’s film to get a better idea of how and why that 34-10 butt-whooping took place.
The ‘Wet Noodle’ Thing
For whatever reason, people are paying mind to Max Kellerman’s “analysis.” I suppose I’m falling into that trap here, too, but that’s because Kellerman was hardly alone.
Mike Tanier of Bleacher Report wrote that Brady’s arm is “toast” and “looks like overcooked fettuccine.” ESPN’s First Take was invoking the name of 2015 Peyton Manning (a man who literally could not throw a spiral and could not get the ball more than 15 yards downfield without a slingshot), and Shannon Sharpe was basically ballroom dancing with glee while declaring Brady old.
Brady obviously played poorly on Sunday, but his arm is suddenly now ineffective? That’s ridiculous.
If I were to venture a guess as to why people would jump to this odd conclusion, I would power rank them in this order:
- Clicks/attention/tweets/vainglory/a desperation to be right about some preposterous “cliff” take from years ago
- They watched one deep ball and assumed they knew all there was to know about Brady’s arm
That deep ball, though, was a throwaway. It came on a second-and-9 at the Titans’ 39-yard line in the second quarter. Brady faked a handoff to Sony Michel, faked a handoff on an end-around to Cordarrelle Patterson, then looked up the field hoping to find a wide-open Josh Gordon streaking on a deep route. The problem was that nobody in the Titans’ secondary bit on either play-action, and Gordon was double-covered. And with literally just one receiver running a route (Michel eventually bled out into traffic after pass-protecting), Brady had nowhere to go. He opted for a throwaway into a portion of the field that he knew was vacated.
This was a throwaway.
I suppose if you just watched this play and saw where the throw went, you might conclude that Brady lacks the arm strength to throw a football 40 yards? But you’d hope that an analyst would have known about and seen Brady complete a 44-yarder to Gordon earlier in the game.
Though, I guess, technically, Brady was about a half-hour older when he threw the incompletion to Gordon. Perhaps that 30 minutes is what turned his arm into a wet noodle. Age comes for us all eventually.
We need not examine every pass that shows that Brady’s arm strength remains intact. He made plenty of throws with zip. He didn’t suddenly lose his arm strength overnight. Anybody telling you this has lost credibility. The man simply had a bad game, for a number of reasons, as he’s had on occasion since he was 15 years old.
While Brady’s arm strength was fine, his decision-making was not exceptional. That tends to happen when a defense generates enough pressure up the middle. When the defense either gets to Brady or takes away his pocket enough times, the quarterback won’t ever feel comfortable. His footwork suffers, and his mechanics follow. It happened in Jacksonville in Week 2, and it happened in Tennessee in Week 10.
The most notable miss came on Brady’s final play of the day — a fourth-and-6 at the Titans’ 42-yard line early in the fourth quarter. Brady was locked in on Julian Edelman, who lined up in the left slot and ran a 10-yard in-cut. Logan Ryan, in tight coverage, broke up the pass. The Patriots were officially done.
But had Brady scanned through his options to look elsewhere, he would have seen two better options. He had a fairly safe option in James White, who easily got past a linebacker and had plenty of room for a catch-and-run in the left flat. A riskier but higher-reward option was up the right sideline, in the form of Chris Hogan, who had burned past Malcolm Butler with a double move:
It was somewhat reminiscent of the two-point conversion attempt in Denver at the end of the 2015 AFC Championship Game. Rob Gronkowski was open on that potential game-tying play, but Brady was locked in on Edelman, and ended up throwing into coverage and getting picked off. Not at all similar plays, but similar results. (Also similar: Brady got physically hammered in that game.)
Another pass that definitely made the viewer at home go “hmmmm” came late in the first half. Brady threw to Chris Hogan, running an out to the left side, and appeared to yank the pass out of bounds unintentionally. A look from the sky, though, shows that the Titans dropped nine into coverage for that play. With only 7 seconds left in the half, it appears Brady went with a throwaway type of decision in order to save as much time as possible.
Credit to the Titans, too, because on the next play — a third down with just two seconds on the clock — Tennessee rushed four men initially and then sent Logan Ryan on a bit of a delayed blitz up the middle after jamming the lone receiver in the left slot.
It worked to perfection, as Brady tried to step up into the pocket to deliver a Hail Mary, only to be greeted by his former teammate. Here you can see how Brayd thought he had a clean pocket, only for it to be impolitely taken away:
That wouldn’t be the only time that the Titans got to Brady, of course.
So, how was it that the greatest quarterback of all time was making poor decisions in the fourth quarter? Sustained pressure from the defense would be the culprit.
A good example came late in the first quarter, with the Patriots facing third-and-8. The Titans loaded the box with linebackers, putting just one defensive lineman (Jurell Casey) on the field and leaving some mystery as to which players would rush and which would drop into coverage:
At the snap, Brian Orakpo (98), Casey (99), and Harold Landry (58) rushed the passer, while Rashaan Evans dropped into coverage. Out of the middle linebacker spot, Wesley Woodyard (54) blitzed up the middle, as did safety Kevin Byard (31).
The left side of the Patriots’ line all took a step to their left, with center David Andrews stepping left to block Casey. Right guard Ted Karras stepped right to block Orakpo. That left a gulf open to Byard and Woodyard. James White stepped in and tried to lay a shoulder on Woodyard, but that barely slowed down the linebacker.
And with no receivers even close to making a break on their routes, Brady was a dead duck. The play resulted in an 11-yard sack, which led to a punt. The Titans then drove for a field goal to stretch their early lead to 17-3.
Ah yes, the defense. After holding Aaron Rodgers to 17 points over four quarters, the Patriots’ defense gave up 24 points to Marcus Mariota in the first half. Ain’t sports great?
Some of the issues were quite simple to diagnose, such as Patrick Chung simply trailing tight end Jonnu Smith for an easy four-yard touchdown pass, or Stephon Gilmore sneaking a peek to the backfield and missing Corey Davis breaking on a deep in-cut earlier in that drive. The Corey Davis rainbow touchdown was simply a case of some spectacular athleticism on display — from both Davis and Mariota. That one would go down as a tip-your-cap moment for Gilmore.
Some of those issues were compounded by some poor tackling. Notably, on the first play of a drive late in the first quarter, Mariota threw to Smith for what should have been a short gain. But Patrick Chung, essentially on an island, couldn’t tackle Smith and couldn’t even hold him up, allowing Smith to run freely and turn a 5-yard pickup into a 20-yard gain.
That drive ended with a field goal.
Later in the first half, with the Titans facing a third-and-14, Davis ran a simple post-corner route. Those steps toward the post created just enough separation from Gilmore for Mariota to be able to step up and deliver a strike to Davis for a gain of 20 and a fresh set of downs.
Kyle Van Noy blitzed on that play, but with Adrian Clayborn looping around the center to the left side of the defensive line, Mariota had plenty of room to step to his left and deliver that ball.
That drive ended with a touchdown, putting the Titans ahead 24-10 before halftime.
The Tit-For-Tat Trick Plays
It wasn’t entirely significant to the outcome of the game, but the matching of trick plays by Mike Vrabel was nevertheless a fun takeaway from this one. Vrabel of course said after the game that he wanted to see if the Titans’ version of the pass to the QB looked better than New England’s.
Well, here’s how well it should have/could have worked for New England:
Edelman was pressured and had to make a leaping throw to get the ball to Brady, but there was some serious acreage for Brady to run had he caught the pass in stride. Instead he had to spin, which, well, yeah. That was the end of that.
Sure enough, the Titans’ play was better. Better throw, better catch, better athlete with the ball in his hands. The execution of that play compared to the Patriots’ is a good indicator of how most of this game went from start to finish.
There were, of course, some good plays. But a 34-10 loss doesn’t afford much opportunity for celebration. And a closer look at this film shows that the Titans were prepared to eliminate the Patriots’ biggest strength (Tom Brady’s offense) and capitalized on the Patriots’ biggest weakness (defense). They didn’t execute it to precise perfection, but they certainly did an excellent job of controlling the game from the very start.