It’s a safe bet that Sunday’s clunker from the Patriots forced many among New England’s football fandom to alter their original plans for this coming Saturday night. Only the most pessimistic of the prescient could’ve seen this coming, after all, and envisioned a scenario in which the once-mighty locals would lose to the lowly Dolphins and in the process bid adieu to their first-round playoff bye.
The Pats haven’t worked on wild card weekend since 2009, and a week after seeming to reassert their supremacy against the Bills it looked nearly certain that streak would endure the decade. Instead, after a bad afternoon, and four brutal minutes of defense, the Patriots will be playing host to the Titans this Saturday night, then forced to hit the road if they happen to survive.
It was a stunning, striking, and swift twist of events to conclude the regular season — but as we reflect on the past year, perhaps what happened Sunday was really more of a culmination than the shock it initially seemed to be. And that even along the route to another 12-win season there were plenty of potholes and warning signs.
How’d we get here? These are the 10 events of 2019 most responsible for putting the Patriots in this position as the ball drops on 2020:
10. The Pats win the 2019 Super Bowl.
The seismic achievement of a sixth championship made an impact not only on the franchise’s place in football history, and the places of Brady and Belichick in modern American sports lore, but it also appeared to affect the way the Patriots went about their business through the spring and summer.
In beating the Rams the way the Pats did, Belichick received positive affirmation for the way he was building his team. For a while, New England — and most of the NFL — had been quarterback-centric in its construction, but in February the Pats lifted the Lombardi based more on the strength of their defense and running game. That they did so while shutting down the league’s en vogue, imitable offensive innovator was all the more empowering for a guy who’s always looking to get ahead of the trend.
So, with a new trophy buoying their belief, the Patriots over the subsequent months continued putting together a team that would primarily win through defense and a strong running game, with the 40-something quarterback serving as more of a complementary piece. They bumped Brady’s pay, but didn’t commit to him long term. And as the season went along, it began to appear more and more like Brady’s position was almost becoming an interchangeable part of the operation.
There’s plenty to indicate New England was on that path, and that plan was in place before February 3. But if it wasn’t for that sixth ring, selling and sticking to a system that deemphasized the quarterback would’ve likely been a much trickier task.
9. Calls cost the Patriots against the Chiefs.
First came a questionable spot. Then a fumble recovery blown dead with open field in front of Stephon Gilmore. Then N’Keal Harry being incorrectly ruled out of bounds on his way to the game-tying touchdown. And finally a highly debatable non-call of what appeared to be pass interference committed against Phillip Dorsett.
Patriots fans had plenty of calls to gripe about in the wake of New England’s 23-16 loss to Kansas City earlier this month, feeling as though the officials cost their team a chance to win the game. Three weeks later it should hurt even more — because if the Pats had won that game, they would’ve wrapped up a bye before even kicking things off against Miami in Week 17.
Instead, Kansas City won the contest, and the tiebreaker, so when both teams finished 12-4 it was the Chiefs who were tagged as the No. 2 seed. If the Pats beat the Titans, it’ll also be the Chiefs who get to host the divisional round duel between the teams.
The sting of those officiating faux pas continues to linger — and could for a while yet.
8. SI reports, AB reacts
Almost immediately after Antonio Brown signed with the Patriots, news broke that a former trainer had alleged in a civil suit that she’d been sexually assaulted by the super-talented receiver. His Patriots career survived that initially, though after Sports Illustrated reported on other improprieties he’d allegedly committed, Brown lashed out in text messages and through social media, and the Pats cut bait.
There’s so much uncertainty, it’s hard to say how it would’ve played out. Brown may well have found himself on the Commissioner’s Exempt list had he remained on the roster, pending a league investigation. But if Brown could’ve simply acted like a professional, or at least like an adult accountable enough for the Patriots to rationalize his employment, things could’ve easily transpired differently on a few fronts.
The production boost in playing with an in-his-prime target like Brown could well have quieted talk of Brady’s decline if the two fully clicked. It easily could’ve been worth one more win. Without such a deficiency in the passing game, maybe the team doesn’t trade for Mohamed Sanu, or at least isn’t desperate enough to surrender their second-round pick.
Or maybe Edelman doesn’t need as much of a pounding, and doesn’t enter the postseason dragging an ailing body. The game after Brown was cut, Edelman was targeted on 10 throws — and left injured at halftime. At age 33, he was targeted at least 10 times in eight straight games before seeing his snap counts reduced noticeably over the final three weeks.
As great as Edelman has been — with 100 catches and 1,117 yards — the team would’ve been better off if Brown had been available to help share the burden.
7. None of the receivers worked out.
Brown wasn’t the only addition who didn’t pan out at his position.
Harry and his tantalizing size were taken in the first round of April’s draft, though he didn’t get on the field until the middle of November, and finished his rookie year with 12 catches for 105 yards.
Veterans Bruce Ellington, Maurice Harris, Dontrelle Inman, and Demaryius Thomas were all signed in the offseason — but none even suited up for a real game.
Sanu required the Patriots to give up a second-round pick, and in eight games he averaged a gain of 4.4 yards per target — worst on the team among those thrown to more than twice.
Josh Gordon was reinstated in time for the start of the regular season, and made a couple nice plays in the opener, but his impact deteriorated before the team cut bait with him around the time it traded for Sanu.
Dorsett was re-signed in the offseason, and scored thrice in the first three weeks. He caught 13 of 14 targets over that span, then hauled in just 16 of 40 throws the rest of the way, and went three weeks without a catch before making one in Sunday’s finale.
Even Jakobi Meyers, who flashed in training camp and at times looked like a preferred option on third down, faded down the stretch.
A lot of bodies have been part of the mix — yet as the Pats start the playoffs, it’s abundantly unclear where Brady can look to aside from Edelman. And that says volumes.
6. Too many blockers go down
In general, the offense has never put together a sustained stretch over which it was good enough to declare an identifiable strength or identity. Part of that is attributable to all of the injuries incurred by those charged with blocking for Brady and the backs.
Center David Andrews was lost in the preseason, and fullback James Develin a couple games in. Left tackle Isaiah Wynn also missed half the season, while fellow linemen Marcus Cannon and Shaq Mason also dealt with short-term ailments. Even backup center Ted Karras and backup fullback Jakob Johnson missed time. So did each of the tight ends.
Over the past couple of weeks the Pats have seemed to put things together up front — not coincidentally as they’re finally healthy. If health had allowed them to get things in order earlier, maybe the running game would’ve worked through its inefficiency. Maybe Brady would be more comfortable, and in a better spot to build rapport with his receivers. Maybe the Pats could’ve established something.
Because the injuries piled up, however, getting to this point took 14 weeks — and by now too much damage has been done.
5. Special teams tilts games
Of course, the Patriots have done some good things, too. There’s a reason the bye was theirs to give away, and why they finished 12-4.
One of them is their ability to turn a game with a timely play on special teams. Blocked punts returned directly for touchdowns produced the game-winning score at Buffalo and represented the difference in a slow first half against the Giants. Belichick said Matthew Slater’s blocked punt was “probably the difference” in beating Dallas, while Nate Ebner’s was a big part of why the Pats had a chance against the Chiefs.
Slater has also recovered and forced fumbles on punts, with Justin Bethel’s recovery setting up a score at Baltimore. Punter Jake Bailey has twice been named the AFC’s special teams player of the week for his contributions to the field-position battle, the rookie combining with the coverage teams to force opponents into the worst average starting position in football.
New England’s record is proof that this has certainly been a year when Belichick’s investment in the so-called third phase has paid significant dividends.
4. An inexcusable defeat
Whether or not it’s the single worst regular-season defeat of the Belichick era, Sunday’s loss to the Dolphins deserves to be on this list. Even with everything else that transpired before that juncture, given the spot the Patriots were in going into the game, then again with less than four minutes to play, there’s no excuse for them to be starting 2020 in this position.
And it’s not only that they’ve now got to win an extra game to get to the Super Bowl, or that they’d likely need to go to both Kansas City and Baltimore. It’s that the wild-card round brings Tennessee, and the Titans are coached by Mike Vrabel, with Dean Pees as his defensive coordinator. They’re both ex-Patriots, and over the past couple of seasons that’s been a problem for Belichick. This year the master was slayed by both Bill O’Brien and Brian Flores, while last year he was bettered by Vrabel and Matt Patricia, meaning that four of New England’s last seven losses were to teams helmed by proteges of the Patriot Way. Whatever advantage the Patriots typically glean from intimidating or striking fear in their foes won’t be a factor when the Titans come to Foxborough.
3. A near-historic turnover rate
The hallmark of the Patriots’ top-ranked defense has been its knack for taking the ball away, which had New England on the verge of the NFL’s best turnover margin in almost 40 years before things dried up in December.
The Pats had at least three takeaways six times, punishing the carelessness of opposing quarterbacks with a league-high 25 interceptions while also pouncing on 11 fumbles. Of New England’s 420 points, roughly a third resulted from possessions that began with a fumble, interception or turnover on downs — 12 touchdowns, 13 field goals — including five scores directly from the defense.
The Pats weren’t able to take the ball away in either of their last two tilts, and a potential playoff run through the Titans, Chiefs, and Ravens would encounter three of the NFL’s seven best at protecting the ball. But at plus-21, New England’s turnover margin was six better than any other squad, and 11 better than any other AFC team, which speaks to the weapon it has been and could be moving forward.
2. Gronk retires
Losing one of the best tight ends in football history was always going to hurt. That’s no surprise. But given their approach to trying to replace him, it might’ve surprised the Patriots just how much — and in how many ways — they missed Rob Gronkowski.
Just look at the issues that have plagued them offensively. The aforementioned problems with blocking and the productivity of the passing game might’ve been solved if he was part of the mix. So might have a red zone offense that ranked 26th in efficiency, and a third-down conversion rate that finished in the bottom half of the league, at No. 17.
Brady finished the regular season with a completion percentage of 60.8, averaging 6.6 yards per pass attempt, and with 24 touchdowns. The only other campaign in this decade when he completed less than 64 percent of his passes was 2013 — which was also the only other time since 2010 that he’s averaged fewer than seven yards per throw and finished with fewer than 28 touchdowns. That season also happened to be the only other year this decade when Gronkowski was on the field for fewer than half of the Patriots’ games, limited by injuries to just 32 percent of the team’s offensive snaps.
In his stead, the Patriots tight ends combined for 37 catches for 419 yards and two touchdowns on 53 targets in 16 games this season. A couple years ago, Gronkowski alone posted 28 grabs, 464 yards, and three scores on 37 targets over the four games between Thanksgiving and Christmas. And, as has become clearer than ever this year, that was only part of the way he impacted those games.
1. Pats pounce on the weak
As Belichick has been fond of pointing out over the years, the Patriots don’t get to decide when they play or who they’re playing against. So this isn’t a slight against them; they didn’t make the schedule. But the biggest factor in bringing the Pats to this point as 2020 begins is that they established the footing for another 12-win, East-title season by taking advantage of football’s easiest schedule over the first couple months.
Since Halloween the Patriots are 4-4, but prior to that they were 8-0 — with only one brag-worthy win among that half-season set. Going to Buffalo and beating the Bills was, especially in retrospect, an achievement. There wasn’t another winner among the other six teams on the slate, though. Four of them went on to lose at least 10 games, and a couple times they even got to face guys like Colt McCoy and Luke Falk because those already bad teams were missing their starting quarterbacks.
Through eight weeks, the Patriots had outscored their opponents by 189 points. Since then, New England is plus-14 — salvaged only by a 21-point win against a Bengals team that finished with the NFL’s worst record. For comparison’s sake, the Titans are plus-58 over the same span.
To paraphrase Bill Parcells, you are what your record says you are. But as 2020 begins, these Patriots sure don’t feel like a 12-4 team.