Five takeaways from the Patriots’ 20-13, season-ending — and perhaps dynasty-destroying — loss to the Titans in the AFC wild card round …
THIS WAS A FLAWED SQUAD ALL ALONG
This might’ve seemed impossible when they were 8-0.
Heck, it still might’ve seemed impossible a week ago, when all they needed for a ticket to the divisional round was to beat the last-place Dolphins.
But in the end, the perception was not in fact the reality. These Patriots were never as good as their record or the expectations told us they were supposed to be.
It became apparent enough over time that the end should not ultimately be all that surprising. The offense severely missed Rob Gronkowski, they couldn’t run the ball consistently or protect the quarterback, and the frustration evident early on in Tom Brady’s postgame body language was foretelling — given that his unit reached 30-plus points only once in the second half of the season.
The defense dominated the first half, feasting on the feeble, but as the difficulty of the schedule elevated so did the numbers of yards and points they were allowing. Once the turnovers started to dry up, so did the sense that they were a truly special group. And special teams anomalies like blocking four punts can only cover up the issues for so long.
Most organizations would consider a division championship and 12 wins a slam dunk of a season. In Foxborough, though, it’s thought of as a failure — and perhaps the fatal blow for a two-decades long dynasty.
Time will tell if that’s true. It’ll also tell if Brady is back next year, and if fellow free agents like Devin McCourty, Kyle Van Noy, Joe Thuney, and Matthew Slater are back with him. The coaching staff could look different, too, especially if Josh McDaniels goes to become a head coach elsewhere.
The future will be sorted out in the weeks and months to come.
And that process will start by facing the fact that at present the Patriots aren’t any better than the third or fourth best team in the AFC.
SITUATIONAL FAILURES DID THEM IN
As much as anything, during this dynasty the Patriots have prided themselves on their ability to win in those moments that demand good situational football. And if Saturday was indeed the night their dynasty died, they can blame their failures in those spots for helping to deliver the final blows.
The Patriots had chances to seize control of the game throughout the first half. All they needed to do was respond to make plays when those opportunities presented. For example:
On the Titans’ first drive, Tennessee had moved the ball effectively, but faced third and 10 from the Patriots’ 12 yard line. The NFL’s No. 1 third-down defense lost Patrick Chung to an injury on the previous play, and the Titans exploited replacement Terrence Brooks in coverage for a touchdown strike.
New England answered nicely. The Pats scored a touchdown of their own, then took over near midfield after Mohamed Sanu’s punt return gave them an edge in a back-and-forth field position battle. They then advanced to the Titans’ 1, and had first and goal from there with a 10-7 lead. They were on the cusp of taking a 10-point lead, but ran it three times without getting in — two of those rushes going backward — and settled for a field goal. (With points on three of four possessions to that point, the Pats didn’t score again.)
Conversely, the Titans took over with barely two minutes left, and the Pats allowed Derrick Henry to single-handedly pick up all 75 yards en route to the end zone. Suddenly, Tennessee had the lead. And could lean on the league’s leading rusher without reservation in the second half.
The Titans did make a mistake by going to the air, and Duron Harmon intercepted a bad pass by Ryan Tannehill. But the Patriots couldn’t capitalize, moving just 12 yards before punting.
After the next Titans possession ate up eight minutes — despite only running 10 plays — the Pats got the ball back with one real possession remaining. They picked up 26 yards on the first two plays, but on second and six Julian Edelman dropped an easy catch that would’ve converted a first down near midfield. Two plays later they punted away their last, best hope.
And part of the reason it was their last, best hope was because the Titans converted a third-and-eight throw to tight end Anthony Firkser — who again beat Brooks, just as he did on Tennessee’s first touchdown.
The chances were there. They were there. And had things gone the Patriots’ way in a couple of those junctures, their season and title defense may still be ongoing. Instead, it’s the Titans who seized their opportunities, and who play on.
BAILEY WAS BAD
Included in the poor situational play was punter Jake Bailey, whose performance in Saturday night’s playoff test stood in stark contrast to that delivered in last year’s Super Bowl by Ryan Allen — who Bailey unseated in training camp.
Allen was a legitimate weapon for the Pats in last February’s grinder against the Rams, and after the early fireworks this year’s wild card contest took on a similar feel. Until Logan Ryan’s interception return with nine seconds remaining, neither team scored in the second half. There was only one turnover. The punters had a chance to make a big difference.
Bailey punted five times, those averaging 46 yards — but those numbers don’t tell the story. After a good first punt, which put the Titans at their own 10, his next was a shank that traveled only 29 yards and gave Tennessee the ball near midfield. He got all of the next one, but it sailed 61 yards and into the end zone for a touchback.
Then after the Pats squandered the chance created by Harmon’s interception, Belichick entrusted his rookie by opting to punt from the Titans’ 47. New England only needed a field goal to take the lead. A good punt, downed by an excellent coverage team, followed up by a three-and-out from the defense, and the Patriots offense would’ve been a couple of first downs from a makeable kick for Nick Folk. Instead, Bailey, who had just six touchbacks all season, kicked it to the end zone for the second straight time.
He’s got a big leg, and there’s no reason to regret the decisions to draft Bailey or cut Allen. He’s a rookie. He’s good. But on this night he wasn’t, and the Patriots paid for it.
THEY KNEW THE CHALLENGE, AND STILL COULDN’T STOP HENRY
Coming in, it was no secret what gave the Titans’ offense its best chance against the Patriots’ defensive. It was Derrick Henry, the 6-foot-3, 238-pound bull who led the league in rushing this season, and has over the past two seasons staked his claim to the title of the NFL’s best running back.
It didn’t take deep film study to figure out that the Pats’ No. 1 priority would be slowing him down enough to force the game into a battle between Titans’ quarterback Ryan Tannehill and New England’s ball-hawking secondary. Belichick teams have long thrived on their ability to eliminate the opponent’s greatest strength, and relegating them to relying on Plan B.
Yet the Pats couldn’t do it. Henry surpassed 100 rushing yards before halftime, and finished the night with 182 on 34 carries. He scored a touchdown on one of those totes, capping a drive on which he accounted for all 75 of the Titans’ yards from scrimmage.
New England had encountered some difficulties against the ground attack at different points this season, and against lesser backs than Henry. The Pats were average in terms of yards per attempt (4.2), but only five teams yielded fewer rushing yards during the regular season. In 16 games, enemies gained just 72 first downs on the ground — an average of 4.5 per tilt — but the Titans nearly tripled that.
They picked up 13 first downs on the ground Saturday night, which is reflective of how successful the running game was in allowing them to manage downs and distances. They were effective on early downs, converted enough on third down, and were rarely (if ever) desperate. That was because of Henry.
As everyone knew it would be if the Titans were to be successful.
On the sidelines of Metlife Stadium back in October, Bill Belichick stood smirking as his team took a delay of game penalty, then followed it with an intentional false start to burn clock in a punting situation during the fourth quarter of a blowout win.
It wasn’t quite as funny Saturday when Mike Vrabel, Belichick’s former linebacker, burnt a couple of precious minutes by having his team do the very same thing as it lined up to boot the ball away in the latter half of the fourth quarter.
In some ways, it was a perfect symbol for what has happened the past couple of years when Belichick has been opposed by coaches who previously worked for him. Vrabel has now beaten him twice, and when combined with defeats to Matt Patricia, Bill O’Brien, and Brian Flores, five of the 10 games New England has dropped over the past two seasons have been to the fruit of his coaching tree.
Those foes don’t fear him or his operation. They don’t kowtow to his greatness. They don’t defer. And — as Vrabel showed Saturday night, in both his preparation and his in-game strategy — not only have they clearly learned a thing or two from the master, but they know how to use those things against him.