After the Patriots’ thorough dismantling of the Cardinals in Week 16 in the snow at Gillette Stadium, with the team’s playoff hopes still in question, left guard Logan Mankins was asked which game he’d most want to take back.
Mankins said he’d like a mulligan on the home losses to the Jets and the Dolphins.
“Those two division losses probably hurt us the most,” said Mankins. “But we have no one to be frustrated with but ourselves. We are the ones that lost all five of those games.”
Although winning 11 games, including their last four, without Tom Brady is an impressive accomplishment, the team is left lamenting the “what-ifs” of the five losses. Just one break along the way might have secured a playoff berth.
There was Jabar Gaffney’s drop of a sure touchdown in the 18-15 loss to the Colts, and Matt Slater’s fumble in a tight game with the Steelers that started a run of five consecutive turnovers. But ultimately the most damaging setbacks were the two division losses.
New England’s only home win in three division games came against the Bills. If the Patriots had taken care of business against division foes at Gillette Stadium, they would have captured their sixth consecutive AFC East title.
Another division win would have given the Patriots not only a better AFC East record, which is the second tiebreaker after head-to-head, but a better conference mark. Miami’s 7-4 record in the AFC compared to New England’s 6-5 mark was the determining factor that put the Dolphins in the postseason even though the teams had identical records. The Ravens were also ahead of the Patriots with an 8-4 AFC record.
“We feel good about a lot of the things that we accomplished this year,” said coach Bill Belichick. “Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough for us to keep playing and so we’re disappointed with that.”
Although the Patriots are the first team with 11 wins to miss the playoffs since the NFL went to a 12-team system, the league isn’t about to change a format that has seemingly worked well since 1990.
“I think it’s fair,” said LaMont Jordan. “The divisional leaders get to go no matter what their record is, and the two wild cards. I think it’s perfect. There is no need to alter it in any way. I think if you alter it, it would do more damage than good.”
After the Dolphins were so easily beaten by the Ravens on Sunday in the first round of the AFC playoffs, the Patriots have to feel even more strongly that the better team didn’t get into the postseason.
The Patriots maintained their annual December dominance and looked like one of the stronger teams in the league toward the end of the year. And though Miami did win nine of its last 10, a closer look shows the Dolphins weren’t exactly world-beaters.
The only team the Dolphins beat in that stretch that was above .500 was the Jets, and Miami didn’t knock off a single playoff team. The one loss was a 48-28 pasting by the Patriots in Miami in Week 12. The combined record of the eight teams the Dolphins beat (including the Bills twice) was 44-84, a paltry .344 winning percentage, and Miami won six of those contests by a touchdown or less.
“It’s difficult because the last part of the season we did our part,” said Pats running back Sammy Morris. “We were undefeated in December and that’s when playoff teams make their push. We did our part towards the end, but we had to rely on other teams.”
No mold on Moss
Though many consider Matt Cassel, Wes Welker, or even Kevin Faulk to be the team MVP, the offensive player on the field the most for New England this season (excluding quarterbacks) was Randy Moss.
He didn’t match the gaudy numbers of last season (98 catches, 1,483 yards, and an NFL-record 23 TD catches), but just having No. 81 on the field opened up many other things, because opposing defenses were still forced to take notice of Moss.
Moss was in for 969 of 1102 offense snaps (88 percent) this season, while Welker and tight end Benjamin Watson were tied for second on offense, getting in on 76 percent of the plays.
Another seemingly unfair result of winning 11 games and not making the playoffs is that the Patriots are slotted to pick No.24 in the draft, behind four teams that made the postseason.
Final regular-season record dictates the order, and the only way New England’s draft position could improve would be if the Chargers or Eagles make it to the Super Bowl.
Tom Wilcox covers the Patriots for OT and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org