By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Some years, when the Patriots’ season comes to an end, it comes as a massive shock to the region. This is not one of those times.
Sure, the Patriots probably had enough talent, especially on defense, to be able to handle themselves on their home field and either fend off the sixth-seeded Titans in the wild-card round or the miserable Dolphins in Week 17. In that sense, the 2019 Patriots underachieved at the end.
But as anyone who’s closely — or even loosely — observed the team all year long, an ending like the one that came on Saturday night at Gillette Stadium seemed all the while to be a matter of when, not if.
Each and every week, a 42-year-old Tom Brady dropped back to pass only to find precious rare opportunities to actually throw the football. For the first time since the dynasty was reignited five years ago, defenses knew exactly how to stifle the Patriots’ offensive attack. A double team on Julian Edelman, man coverage across the board, and just a moderately decent pass rush was all it took to send Brady to the sideline and punter Jake Bailey onto the field. (The Patriots had their most punts this season since 2003, a completely different era of football.)
And as the season churned on, the defense that carried this team through the first half of the year needed that offense to turn the corner it usually does once the weather turns in November. That defense was praised as great, and it was great. But in the modern NFL, a team can only rely on its defense so much. Rare is the team that can ride the defense from Week 1 through the Super Bowl without a representative contribution from the offense.
Yet despite the 19 years of NFL experience from Josh McDaniels and the 20 years on Brady’s resume — not to mention the 45 years of Bill Belichick’s experience — the offense never came around. The “switch” was never “flipped,” so to speak, and the output became too meager for any team to survive. Once the law of averages led to a significant dip in defensive and special teams touchdowns, the flaccidity of the Patriots’ offense was bared for the football world to see.
Seventeen points in Philly. But it was windy.
Thirteen points vs. Dallas. But it was rainy.
A three-quarter no-show in Houston. A 16-point showing, half of which came on a trick play, at home against a vulnerable Chiefs defense. A sputtering showing against a dreadful Bengals team. Too little, too late vs. Miami. But, but, but.
All it took to put the finishing touches on the Patriots’ season was for a strong, aggressive, and unafraid to defense to stand up to them in January. Mike Vrabel was the right candidate to carry that defense into Foxboro and put the Patriots out of their misery.
And so, the 2019 Patriots became the first Patriots team to fail to win a playoff game since the 2010 team that got upset in spectacular fashion by the Jets, a loss much more shocking than the one that was handed to the team on Saturday night.
Ultimately, this year’s team should be remembered as a wasted opportunity, in line with the 2013, or 2006, or certainly Super Bowl LII. The team saw Rob Gronkowski flirt with retirement for two years but had no contingency plan for his actual departure. The parade of receivers heading out the door — Danny Amendola, Brandin Cooks, Chris Hogan — without proper replenishment reached a critical mass. The flood of assistant coaches to depart over the past two offseasons did not help matters. No backup plans at tackle and a mediocre backup plan at center, combined with multiple injuries at the fullback position led to a running game that resembled the Titanic last winter downscaling to tugboat power.
Taken together, it all led to undrafted rookie receivers Jakobi Meyers and Gunner Olszewski taking offensive snaps. It led to a team that’s relied heavily on tight ends for a decade only getting 418 total receiving yards and two touchdown from their tight end trio. (Last year, in the second-worst full offensive season of his career, Rob Gronkowski had 682 yards and three touchdowns by himself.) It led to Brandon Bolden — a special teamer who returned to the team after a one-year sabbatical with Miami and who scored eight touchdowns in his first 83 games with New England– scoring almost 10 percent of the team’s offensive touchdowns.
It was too much to overcome.
Defensively, without the help coming from the other side of the ball, the season simply became too long. The ineptitude of the offense forced the Patriots’ defense to take the field for the third-most drives in the NFL, fewer than only the Buccaneers (a team with a 30-interception QB) and Panthers (a team with no QB). Despite that, they still led the NFL in yards allowed and points allowed per drive, they still led the league in fewest plays allowed per drive, and they still led the league in interceptions made per drive. Ranking first in third-down defense and sixth in red-zone defense, they gave the Patriots a strong chance to win in 14 of their 17 games played this season. That should have been good enough.
One of those games was certainly Saturday’s playoff loss. Despite Derrick Henry’s bullying of the run defense, the bottom line is that 14 points should not be an insurmountable point total for a Tom Brady/Josh McDaniels-led offense, in Foxboro, in January. This year, though, it was.
Say whatever you’d like about the shame in that reality. Dish out the blame however you see fit — whatever feels right. But no matter what exactly you end up saying, you can’t say that you didn’t see it coming.
With that 2019 Patriots eulogy in the books, it’s time for one last run through the leftover thoughts, with these ones coming from the 20-13 Titans win over the Patriots in the wild-card round of the playoffs.
–A final score of 20-13. 20-13. 2013. Appropriate.
–There will surely be a lot of talk about whether Tom Brady is DONE or COOKED or WASHED UP or an OLD BUM. Etc., etc., etc. That’s how it goes in the wild world of sports.
The reality is, for a 42-year-old, what the man just did from September through January was unprecedented.
Warren Moon played four games (two starts) over three seasons following his 42nd birthday, throwing three total touchdowns and two interceptions.
Vinny Testaverde played 12 games (eight starts) after his 42nd birthday, throwing seven touchdowns and eight interceptions.
Doug Flutie played three games (just one start) after his 42nd birthday, throwing one touchdown.
Steve DeBerg played eight games (one start) after his 42nd birthday, throwing three touchdowns and one interception.
George Blanda played for seven seasons after his 42nd birthday, but he didn’t start any games at quarterback, throwing 14 touchdowns and 13 interrceptions, doing most of his work as a kicker.
Meanwhile Tom Brady played and started in 17 games, throwing 24 touchdowns to nine interceptions, throwing his most passes since 2015, and setting a new standard for quarterback performance past 40. It doesn’t sound like he plans on stopping, but if he were to retire, his age 42 season should be remembered for far more than the underwhelming statistics.
–The other reality is that this was, in essence, the postcard of the season for Brady:
Nobody open. No protection. Try to bounce around and hope for the best.
There aren’t many quarterbacks on the planet — if there are any — who could have thrived in such circumstances.
–Likewise, there aren’t many quarterbacks who can make this pass:
Watch that again.
Good gravy. Might have been his best pass of the year.
–This is kind of sad, but my final note of the year was this: “Edelman drop. Yyyyyikes.”
It’s sad because, yes, Edelman could be counted on for about one drop every week, but that’s also because he was the centerpiece of the Patriots’ offense. He was the engine. And the axles. And probably a tire or two. (I don’t know; not a car guy.)
He accounted for 20 percent of the total offense on the season and he scored nearly 25 percent of the team’s receiving touchdowns. Many of the other receiving touchdowns were scored thanks to extra attention paid to him. On Saturday, he scored the Patriots’ lone touchdown. He did most of that while fighting through injuries at an age where countless wide receivers have already washed out of the league.
There is no way to measure Edelman’s toughness and importance to the team.
There’s also no way to downplay the significance of this drop.
As the note said. Yikes!
Let’s examine just how costly the drop was. That is, can the loss be blamed on this one moment, the way, say, maybe a certain Super Bowl in February of 2012 could be blamed on a single drop?
The answer is “sort of but not really.”
If Edelman catches that ball, it’s first-and-10 for the Patriots at their own 45-yard line. If we generously say Nick Folk’s range was 50 yards, then the Patriots still would have needed 23 more yards to reach the 32-yard line. That would have made their drive 57 yards in total. Prior to that drive, the Patriots hadn’t mounted a drive of 57 or more yards since their second drive of the game — the touchdown drive.
After that, the Patriots gained on average just 25 yards per drive.
On the Edelman drop drive, the Patriots had gained … 26 yards.
Could the Patriots have actually mounted the game-winning field goal drive in this instance? Well, if you’re an optimist, then sure. Heck yeah!
But given the way the Titans’ defense held the Patriots’ offense in check for the previous 40 minutes or so, it would be false to state with simplicity that if Edelman had just caught the ball, then the Patriots would have won the game.
–That being said, it would have been cooler if he caught the ball.
In terms of, you know, drama. A Brady drive. A Folk kick. A January night. I would have watched it. That’s all I’m saying.
–The other dagger? Shaq Mason’s penalty for being downfield. That was a back-breaker.
Had Ben Watson’s 38-yard reception counted, the Patriots would have been set up with a first-and-10 from Tennessee’s 25-yard line in a game they trailed 14-13. A go-ahead field goal would be a certainty. A touchdown (with the potential for a two-point conversion) was a very real possibility. A play that big to convert a third-and-10 can have that kind of ripple effect.
But instead, it came back. Instead, a third-and-15 and a terrible screen play and then a terrible punt followed.
The Edelman drop was big, but to me, this one was bigger. You convert a third-and-10, with — of all things — a 38-yarder to a WIDE OPEN Ben Watson, after the Titans dropped eight men into coverage.
Negated by Mason chasing a DT up the field. Dagger. pic.twitter.com/mGnk7Vuz1I
— Michael Hurley (@michaelFhurley) January 5, 2020
After losing those 38 yards to penalty, the Patriots’ offense gained just 29 yards over their final nine plays.
That was your ballgame. For all the praise that Vrabel’s team will get, it was a self-inflicted wound that did in the Patriots.
–On Thursday last week, Tom Brady said that playoff games often come down to one or two plays. You can’t know which plays those are going to be, you just have to do your best to come out on the right side of them.
The Shaq Mason penalty was certainly one on offense. On defense, another one stood out — and it looked to be disastrous even before the ball was snapped.
Immediately after the Patriots settled for a field goal following Tennessee’s goal-line stand, the Titans took over at their own 25-yard line.
The Patriots opted to take the field with just two down linemen, the big bodies of Danny Shelton and Lawrence Guy in the middle of the line. After reading the handoff to Derrick Henry, Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins tried to flood the middle of the line, with Collins’ step toward the middle of the line opening a hole off the right side. Even if Collins had shifted to his left, right tackle Jack Conklin had stepped out to seal him off.
Tight end MyCole Pruitt sealed John Simon on the edge, and from there it was Derrick-Henry-With-A-Full-Head-Of-Steam barreling at the 198-pound cornerback J.C. Jackson.
You’ll never guess what happened next.
With three stuffs at the goal line, and then that run? That’s how a road team keeps a playoff game from getting away from them. A 22-yard screen pass a few plays later, followed by a bowling ball run into the end zone from the 1-yard line, and that was the drive when the Titans showed they had what was necessary to become the rare team to win a playoff game in Foxboro.
–Do you want to relive that goal-line stand? Yeesh. OK. It’s your funeral.
First of all, credit to the Titans’ D for stopping a full-speed Rex Burkhead to prevent the touchdown in the first place:
Not every team even bothers to make that stop. Seriously. Even in the playoffs. It’s part of what has led to so many Patriots blowout victories in games that were supposed to be close. But the Titans’ defense? They felt they could make a stop. And so they did.
On first down, Rashaan Evans simply entered another dimension. The play was blocked decently enough, and Michel was just waiting for Elandon Roberts to take out his man before following his hip into the end zone.
But what are you going to do when Superman decides to don his cape, you know?
Unreal play (by a player the Patriots maybe wanted to draft in 2018 before the Titans moved up to select him ahead of them).
Second down from the 2-yard line: With Mohamed Sanu split out wide right, Edelman motioned right to left. With Roberts and Michel in the backfield (and with Marshall Newhouse in as an extra blocker), everything was on the table, and Tennessee’s defense had to account for everything. A promising play. But the play clock was down to zero. Brady had to call timeout.
The Patriots came out of that timeout in more of a spread set, with Phillip Dorsett out wide, Sanu in the right slot, and Edelman in the left slot. Matt LaCosse lined up behind the line and motioned right to left. The Patriots were trying to sell pass. Nobody in a white jersey bit. In fact, a late shift to the defensive right likely made the difference.
Austin Johnson bullied Isaiah Wynn into the backfield, which forced Burkhead to cut inside. DaQuan Jones made a tremendous individual effort to slide along the line of scrimmage, catch Burkhead at full speed, and stop him just shy of the goal line.
On third-and-goal from inches out, perhaps the QB sneak had been called. But Brady didn’t like what he saw, and he used another timeout. They emerged from that timeout with a heavy set, with two tight ends plus Newhouse, and Roberts in the backfield in front of Michel.
Ted Karras lost badly to Jeffery Simmons, which prevented Michel from getting going in the backfield. That was the only window that Superman Evans needed to fly to the rescue. Again.
Should the Patriots have gone for it on fourth down? In retrospect, of course. But at the time, the Patriots couldn’t have known the offensive futility that awaited them. To that point, they scored on three of their first four drives. They thought they’d score again. Turning it over on downs at that point on the field without getting any points could have really hurt.
That was the logic, anyway. Turns out, settling for a field goal and then allowing Derrick Henry to go 75 yards for a touchdown before halftime hurts much more.
–Don’t let anyone ever tell you that “Ryan Tannehill beat the Patriots in the playoffs.” That simply did not happen. Ryan Tannehill stunk outside of two throws. He was a net negative.
Derrick Henry beat the Patriots. Mike Vrabel beat the Patriots. The Patriots beat the Patriots. Ryan Tannehill did not beat the Patriots.
–There are certain things that are just quintessentially Boston. Seeing my Twitter timeline explode with rage because Sony Michel opted to duck out of bounds instead of lean his body into three or four defenders to gain an extra three or four yards was one of those moments.
An arctic blast of wind down your back while waiting to cross a street. Admiring the blackened, disgusting snow on the side of the road for three months. Feeling a superior level of toughness to professional football players. Gotta love it.
–The Titans won the game, but they also busted out some Zero Humans Defense. First, on Edelman’s touchdown run:
Later, in a critical situation, on James White:
At least the ZHD went out with a bang, you know?
–I don’t know if you know this, because he likes to really keep it a secret … but Mike Vrabel is kind of a wiseacre. He’s a real smart aleck. So it feels safe to assume that using Belichick’s own clock trick to beat Belichick in the playoffs in Foxboro? My goodness. That has to be a top 10 moment of his life.
–Has this happened more often than usual this year, or does it just stand out because of the lack of playmakers to make up for them?
I don’t have the answer. Lots of drops out there though.
–On that note, Mohamed Sanu’s final snap of 2019 was on brand:
Didn’t matter much outside of the pick-six ascribed to Brady. But not really how you ever want to look at any point.
–Anyway. It’s future time now. I don’t know what that means. You don’t know what that means.
But we have an idea.
If Josh McDaniels doesn’t leave now, then he might never leave. And after a thousand Patriots coaches left with Brian Flores last year, the offense could theoretically have to kind of start from scratch without McDaniels … and perhaps without Brady.
That would be … bananas.
But Brady could also return. He could also retire. He could also go dominate the XFL. There’s no use spending too much time speculating on it now.
For the moment, as it relates to the 2019 season? It had promise. It should have been better. But everyone who watched the Patriots machine slowly leak oil over the second half of this season. It should have come next weekend, with the potential of even lasting to championship weekend.
Yet, aside from 2011, Patriots teams this flawed don’t reach Super Bowls. Saturday’s loss was not pretty, but it was the arrival of the inevitable. Perhaps it was best to rip the bandage rather than drag it out any longer.