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Football Notes

Postseason postmortem: A look back and ahead

By Greg A. Bedard
January 23, 2011

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So we’ve arrived at conference championship Sunday. And, yes, the Patriots still aren’t playing. It wasn’t just a bad Bart Scott-induced dream.

Actually, yes it was. It was a nightmare. And it was real.

And there are still a few things left to be said about how the 14-2 Patriots went out with a whimper again.

As well as how it can be avoided again.

First, a few leftover pieces:

He is still terrific, but some of Tom Brady’s indecision didn’t have to do with any hits he took. The real difference-maker was the interception Brady threw on the first possession. Not only did it show the Jets that he wasn’t invincible, it put doubt into Brady’s head for the first time in 339 pass attempts.

Sure, the Patriots receivers were blanketed like never before, and the Jets’ scheme was something to marvel at. But there were throws for Brady to make, or even attempt.

On the third-down sack Brady took in the red zone before the opening field goal — when the Jets had eight defensive backs on the field for the only time all game — Aaron Hernandez was open in the right corner of the end zone. Even put his hand up. Brady saw him but chose not to throw.

It also happened on a possible dump down to Wes Welker. And a square-in by Brandon Tate. Even a deep pass attempt could have helped loosen up the defense.

Obviously, turnovers are to be avoided, but one of the most important qualities of a great quarterback is being able to put a mistake immediately behind you. Brady didn’t have to do that in 11 games. Maybe he forgot how to do it. Sometimes interceptions aren’t a terrible thing. Sometimes they just come from making a throw that needs to be attempted.

Some of the hits Brady has taken this week are amazing. People love to throw out comparisons. Joe Montana never lost two home playoff games in a row. Yeah, well, after the 49ers won in 1984, San Francisco lost its opening playoff game in its next three tries. And those 49ers didn’t have to deal with a salary cap.

One thing Bill Belichick will likely be studying in the offseason is how to deal with the playoff bye week, should it come up again. This was the fifth time under Belichick the Patriots had one, and they had been 4-0. The Patriots went on to the Super Bowl each time.

But whatever may have worked with the more veteran teams in 2001, ’03, ’04, and ’07 obviously didn’t work this time with a much younger squad, because the execution throughout the team was lacking.

That being said, Belichick’s teams have never come out of a playoff bye like world-beaters. They trailed the Raiders, 13-3, in the fourth quarter of the Tuck Rule game in ’01. The Titans played the Patriots even into the fourth until a field goal gave New England a 17-14 victory in ’03. The Patriots beat the Colts, 20-3, in ’04 after a halftime lead of just 6-3. And the 16-0 Patriots of ’07 were tied at halftime with the Jaguars before winning, 31-20.

So the fact that the Patriots struggled against the Jets shouldn’t be a surprise. It’s happened before with Belichick. But his veteran teams could grind those games out. This inexperienced unit couldn’t.

Additional areas that need to be addressed for this team to deliver on the great promise that is still very much there:

■A receiver has to emerge as a legitimate speedy playmaker. Sure, Randy Moss could have helped against the Jets — the one from ’07 who didn’t pout and need to be fed a certain amount of passes or else he’d tune out. Deion Branch and Welker excel at short-area quickness and get yards after the catch, but they don’t stretch the field or scare defenses with talent in the secondary. Could Tate or Taylor Price provide that? Maybe. But it wouldn’t hurt to throw a few more bodies at the problem.

■They have to find more pass rush. It was a problem at crucial times during the season, and you knew it would rear its head in a big spot. Losing end Mike Wright to injury really hurt, but he will need more help. The Patriots need more linemen who can win one-on-one battles in the sub packages when the Patriots favor four-man lines. And linebacker Jermaine Cunningham must make a big jump from year one to two, when NFL players take their biggest jump. There’s a looming problem with that this year: a lockout. The Patriots better hope for a short one because Cunningham — and Tate, Price, and the other younger players — need all the organized team activities and mini-camps they can get. March to June is when young players really work on their craft. That could all be wiped out in a lockout.

Regardless of how the Patriots went out — and it especially hurts at the hands of the mouthy Jets — there is not some looming problem over this team, which far exceeded even its own expectations.

Armed with draft picks and a very good squad, they are still set up for a prolonged run of success.

Losses like last Sunday’s, or even last year’s against the Ravens, happen in the salary-cap era. It’s inevitable. The Patriots spoiled you last decade because they were smarter than everyone else. But there’s no big flaw in the program. It’s the nature of the beast in the NFL.

Yeah, it stinks that the Patriots aren’t playing today. Welcome to what every other team goes through — if they’re lucky.

HUE AND CRY
Davis covers a lot of ground You may have heard about the Raiders press conference last week to announce Hue Jackson as their head coach. But the exposure to the session, which lasted two hours and 10 minutes and included a shot at the Patriots, was probably limited.

They will be using this in a public relations class somewhere on how not to introduce a new coach.

Ladies and gentlemen, 81-year-old Brockton-born Raiders owner Al Davis:

On whether he regrets trading former coach Jon Gruden to Tampa Bay: “Oh no, no, I don’t. No. Not at all. Nope. Because look, Jon beat us in the g-damn Super Bowl, that’s the only thing I regret. But take a look at Jon’s performance at Tampa . . . His deal at Tampa, how long was he there? [Seven years] What did he do? [He won a Super Bowl] Yeah, the first year. Beat us. He didn’t win a Super Bowl, he beat us with . . . [Tony] Dungy goes around and says it’s Dungy’s team.’’

On whether he’s frustrated at not getting the right coach: “Well, it may not have been the right one; it may not have been all the good players. I have to be honest. I have to check myself. I thought we could have done better several times. Take a look at Norv [Turner], is fighting for his life down there in San Diego. Everyone was excited when he was with the 49ers. Then, when he went down there, he got them into the playoffs and all but now they’re starting to slip a little . . . I had picked Payton, Sean, brought him out here [Payton turned Davis down]. He goes to New Orleans, they win a Super Bowl, then this year they’re supposed to ride through the playoffs, they get beat by Seattle that we nailed.’’

On not making the playoffs: “No one that we ever played wanted to cover Cliff Branch, that’s for sure, no matter how old he was. Then, New England got a lesson the other day. Not that the guy still has it, but had they kept [Randy Moss], they would have beaten the Jets.’’

Do you regret trading Moss? “Yes, I did at the time. Yeah. I can’t look back that far now. No, that’s a mistake I made. I let it happen. The coach wanted to trade him.’’

On some questionable drafts: “I did the [2010] draft. I made a trade for [Richard] Seymour. Gave up the first-rounder this year. I could tell you why. You may not think it was a good trade. I thought it was a great trade. Still do. I drafted [cornerback Nnamdi] Asomugha, early in the 2000 season. I caught hell from all over the league that he isn’t a first-rounder, he’s a third-rounder. Now he’s getting $17 million just to play corner. Willie Brown wished we’d paid that kind of money. He wouldn’t even be here today. He’d own the team.’’

ETC.
A time to shine in the Shrine The drive to the NFL draft started last week with practices for the East-West Shrine Game in Orlando. Some of the prospects on the rise from their performances:

Marvin Austin, DL, North Carolina (6-2, 312) — One of the suspended Tar Heels who has character issues. A 4-3 penetrating tackle.

Brandon Bair, DL, Oregon (6-6, 273) — A name to watch for the Patriots because scouts think he can add weight and be a 3-4 end.

David Carter, DL, UCLA (6-4 1/2, 297) — Another guy that could fit in a 3-4.

Will Rackley, C/G, Lehigh (6-3, 307) — Big step up in competition, and needs to work on technique but is tenacious.

Terrell McClain, DL, South Florida (6-2, 305) — A quick nose tackle type with power.

Cecil Shorts, WR, Mt. Union (6-0, 200) — Same Division 2 school that produced Pierre Garcon of the Colts.

Joseph Barksdale, OT, LSU (6-4 1/2, 336): Needs more bend but having 35 1/2-inch arms helps.

Short yardage Peter King of Sports Illustrated reported last week that there may be a few hard-line owners so dead-set on having the new collective bargaining agreement revert to its pre-2006 status that they wouldn’t mind losing a season. But several owners at the meeting in Atlanta Tuesday disputed that, including Robert Kraft. “One nice thing that came out of here is I’ve never in 17 years seen the ownership as unified and supportive of what the management team is doing in the labor negotiations,’’ Kraft said. “We’re really together. All teams, small teams, large teams. It’s the most supportive I’ve ever seen, which is really good. I hope we get this deal done. There’s enough there and we need people who want to negotiate on both sides. Good business people and less lawyers.’’ . . . Congratulations to former Patriots ball boy and Phillips Academy and Brown star Zak DeOssie on being selected for his second Pro Bowl as a long snapper from the Giants. Asked about his father Steve DeOssie’s reaction, Zak said, “He was psyched. They were both screaming on the phone. We’re trying to figure out how to get the whole family out there last minute.’’ . . . Teams with new coaching staffs will have one major disadvantage if a lockout lingers. In previous years, teams with new coaches were permitted to conduct two additional voluntary minicamps for veteran players. No CBA, no workouts — voluntary or otherwise . . . Many expect Titans quarterback Vince Young, who will be released or traded, to end up with the Vikings. Former Titans quarterbacks coach Craig Johnson was hired for the same position in Minnesota. “Obviously I have a good working relationship with Vince and he produced pretty well under me,’’ Johnson said. Joe Webb is the only quarterback currently on the Vikings roster . . . Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti backed coach John Harbaugh’s decision to retain embattled offensive coordinator Cam Cameron even though there are rumblings through the organization that Cameron’s offense was too predictable and he doesn’t take suggestions on play-calling or game-planning . . . Still can’t see Bengals receiver Chad Ochocinco landing with the Patriots after his expected release. Coach Marvin Lewis was asked about Ochocinco’s tweet that encouraged a landing with the Patriots. “No one was talking about him,’’ said Lewis. “He couldn’t stand that. You want them to talk about you? Go win football games.’’ . . . Could Mike Vrabel (left) land back with the Patriots? He’s 35, set to be a free agent, and the Patriots could use a veteran to teach guys like Jermaine Cunningham a thing or two at outside linebacker . . . Pat McQuistan started eight games at guard for the Dolphins after the Cowboys dumped his salary in a training camp trade. They got nothing in return because the Dolphins finished with a better record than the Cowboys . . . The Titans, who fired defensive coordinator Chuck Cecil, suffered a huge loss when defensive line coach Jim Washburn took the same job with the Eagles. Washburn, who developed 10 Pro Bowlers in 12 seasons, had three-year offers from both teams but went with the added security, since nothing is promised Titans coach Jeff Fisher beyond this season. “I need to get invigorated a little bit,’’ Washburn told The Tennessean. “It wasn’t anything in particular, I just thought it was about time. It is no reflection on the state of the Titans or anything. As a matter of fact, the Titans having the troubles is the one thing that made me want to stay. It almost kept me here. I’d like to be with them to fight their way back to the top. So I don’t want it to look like I am running out.’’

By the numbers 0: Punts for the Packers in their playoff victory over the Falcons. That’s the first time, including playoffs, Green Bay accomplished the feat in 21 years.

1: Team that will play all four of today’s conference finalists during the 2011 season — the Chiefs. They won’t have the benefit of a last-place schedule next season.

3: Alcohol-related charges against new Ravens offensive line coach Andy Moeller in the past four years. “As long as he is doing what he is expected to do, then he has our support, the caveat being that it’s his last chance, and he knows that,’’ Bisciotti said.

8: Consecutive years the Bills have finished in the bottom eight in the NFL in offense. They finished 25th this season.

View from the outside From Aaron Schatz: Football Outsiders measures Open Field Yards Per Carry, counting gains that come more than 10 yards past the line of scrimmage. Which defenses gave up the fewest long runs? The ones playing in today’s AFC Championship. Pittsburgh led the league, allowing only two runs over 15 yards all season. The Jets were third, with Miami in between. Green Bay was fourth, Chicago 18th. The Patriots were eighth. The worst defense at preventing long runs? Jacksonville, which gave up 27 runs over 15 yards.

Greg A. Bedard can be reached at gbedard@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @greg_a_bedard. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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