In the immediate disappointment of a season ending two victories short of a parade, the inevitable search for scapegoats rarely fails to cover a broader range than necessary. It can turn into a Hot Taker’s Ball around here even before the confetti and tears have finished falling. Maybe for the more miserable pledges in the fellowship, playing a couple of high-decibel rounds of the blame game is cathartic.
But it also requires ignoring the obvious: The Patriots lost to the Broncos, 20-18, in Sunday’s AFC Championship Game because they could not prevent Von Miller and the ferocious Denver pass rush from folding, spindling and mutilating Tom Brady virtually every time he dropped back and put his well-being at risk.
That’s it. That’s why. That’s the main reason there will be no trip to Santa Clara for the Patriots, and no Super Bowl 50 comeuppance for NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. No honorable-mention ranking of those who may or may not have been at fault in defeat is necessary. The offensive line was porous, overmatched and inept. Marcus Cannon played like he was trying to simultaneously block Miller and pilot a hoverboard. It was not an effective approach. The rest of the Patriots’ line wasn’t much more competent. Brady has a long offseason to recover from his bumps, bruises, and any other more serious maladies he may have endured. He’s going to need it, and does he ever deserve a break.
No, the end of the Patriots’ quest — their Vengeance Tour — to win a second straight Super Bowl, a fifth of the Brady-Belichick era, and make Goodell look like an unmasked Scooby Doo villain in front of 115 million or so television viewers did not occur because Brady played scared.
I’m not sure he’s ever been tougher than he was Sunday.
The argument that he’s the greatest quarterback of all time has always been best buttressed by his heightened performances in big moments, his mountains of team and personal achievements. We’ve simply been the chorus. It is true that the chorus found few opportunities — or fewer than usual — to sing his praises Sunday. In living rooms around New England, perhaps at times there was even a chorus of scattered boos.
Brady played poorly from the Patriots’ first possession, and it was so jarring you almost wondered whether Tom Coughlin had replaced Gary Kubiak on the Broncos’ sideline. He completed just nine of 20 passes in the first half for 87 yards. He threw two interceptions before the break, including one to Miller that set up the Broncos’ second touchdown. It was arguably the worst interception he’s thrown in Denver since Champ Bailey’s goal-line pick-and-sprint a decade ago. Overall, he was 27 of 56 for 310 yards, with a touchdown, the two picks, and this mildly ignominious feat:
This was the 1st time in Tom Brady's career that he completed less than half of his passes and threw multiple INT in a game— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 24, 2016
The stat line was hideous, and it only confirmed what your eyes told you. I’m not sure we’ve ever seen Brady look so out of sorts. He had maybe five or 10 throws all day that were delivered with confidence and ideal accuracy. At times, he felt a rush that wasn’t there, at one point delivering a pass that looked more like a hurried sky hook. He developed happy feet for an obvious reason: It was surprising when the rush wasn’t there. In 60 dropbacks, the Broncos sacked him 4 times, forced 18 hurries, and …
Broncos 20, Patriots 18. It's a final. Tom Brady was hit 23 times in the game, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Says it all.— Mike Reiss (@MikeReiss) January 24, 2016
No quarterback in the history of the NFL would have thrived under the circumstances Brady faced Sunday. Some may not have survived. Yet the Patriots had a chance at the end, and he gave it to them. Rob Gronkowski, who battled dehydration but was valiant (eight receptions, 144 yards), caught a touchdown pass to cut the deficit to two points with 12 seconds remaining. But the epic comeback bid ended right there. Brady’s 2-point conversion attempt was tipped and picked off, and thus the vengeance tour became a victory celebration for the Broncos.
In ideal circumstances, the Patriots would have not had to go for two there. But no, the loss was not due to a missed extra point by kicker Stephen Gostkowski in the first quarter, either. Too much happened later to blame it on that. Gostkowski wasn’t especially complicit in the outcome unless he took a few incognito turns on the offensive line at some point.
Sure, irony was easy to find in his miss, which left the Patriots a point shy of a 7-7 tie in the first quarter. Belichick was a driving force in the rule change to move the extra-point try to a 34-yarder this year, and in the end, his kicker’s first no-good in 524 attempts hurt his team. The many Belichick haters will savor that.
But it was not a choke — Gostkowski has played in 19 playoff games and converted 60 postseason extra-point tries before. On a normally prolific day, the Patriots would have overcome his rare miss before halftime. He’s the second-greatest kicker the Patriots have ever had, trumped only by Adam Vinatieri, the greatest kicker anyone has ever had.
Be frustrated, but go easy. It was a physical error, one that will cause more mental anguish for him than all of you put together. Spend your Ray Finkle jokes elsewhere. I’m sure Blair Walsh would appreciate a few more.
No, the Patriots didn’t lose because of a lack of halftime adjustments, either. That’s a lazy concept for you and me and verbose, vapid color analysts to chatter about when we’ve got nothing else. Belichick dismissed the meaning of them in October, saying: “Halftime adjustments, I mean that’s ridiculous. Why wait until halftime? There it is. The first series of plays you can see what they’re going to do, so you’d better start dealing with it.’’ The only halftime adjustment the Patriots should have made was to bring back Dante Scarnecchia, Matt Light and John Hannah. And there probably wasn’t enough time for them to get to Denver by the end of the game.
Yet without such reinforcements, the Patriots still nearly pulled it out in the end. It was a frustrating day, a sad and abrupt end to the tour, but an incredible game. Rather than searching for scapegoats, perhaps, after the initial shock wears off, we should search for context. A crushing year around here is a two-point loss in the conference championship game. That’s a lot of jobs well done along the way.