Five Patriots-focused takeaways from the NFL’s divisional round, which proceeded without Tom Brady and Bill Belichick for the first time in a decade…
Still stuck between regret and acceptance
As the Titans were taking it to the Ravens on Saturday night, it would’ve been perfectly reasonable for Patriots fans watching from New England to feel as though they were coming to grips with having watched their team bow out a week earlier. Tennessee went to Baltimore and validated what they did in Foxborough, and certified its credentials as more than a mere 9-7 wild-card entrant. Now having won nine of 12, and outscoring opponents by 88 points since a Week 11 bye, a 28-12 divisional-round victory proved that the Titans are legit. There’s no shame in losing to a team like that, and Saturday night might’ve offered just the affirmation Pats Nation needed to accept their club’s premature playoff exit.
But, at the same time, it was almost impossible for a Patriots fan to watch the developments down in Maryland and not be wondering about all the what-ifs. What if the Pats had just played to their potential against Miami in the regular-season finale? What if they’d thwarted a poor Dolphins offense on the season’s final drive? What if they’d cashed in on having first and goal from the Titans’ 1? What if they’d buckled down instead of letting Derrick Henry single-handedly go 75 yards in 101 seconds before halftime?
What if the Patriots had seized any of the myriad opportunities to extend their season into the divisional weekend, and could’ve been battling for a chance to host the AFC championship as the vulnerabilities of the top-seeded Ravens were being exposed?
That’s where it all becomes exponentially more maddening, and tougher for New England’s fans to accept their fate. For all of the flaws that had surfaced over recent weeks and months, everything was still there for the Pats if they’d simply handled their business. There was a path to a fourth straight Super Bowl. It was there. But they didn’t survive long enough to let it develop.
Part of that is a result of running into a Titans team that commands respect, and has announced itself as a contender by standing up to the conference’s heavyweights on consecutive Saturday nights. Tennessee is good — and at the moment they’re playing great. Look beyond the seeding; they’ve probably been better than the Patriots since Thanksgiving. And they go into Kansas City with a real chance of leaving Arrowhead Stadium with freshly minted new hats and T-shirts.
By now, Patriots fans are probably able to acknowledge all of that. But it may be a while yet before they’re willing to fully accept it.
Is Tennessee becoming the best place for Brady?
For months the Titans have been mentioned among the possible destinations if Tom Brady were to depart from the Patriots — but after these past couple of weeks, might they be the best spot for the quarterback?
Ryan Tannehill led the NFL in passer rating this season after taking over for Marcus Mariota in the middle of the season, and the Titans reportedly have interest in making a longer-term commitment to him as he enters free agency. Two playoff wins should pad his resume nicely.
However, look at what Tannehill has done in those two wins. He has 15 completions and 160 yards — total. He followed up his 8-for-15, 72-yard performance at New England with a 7-for-14, 88-yard effort against Baltimore. He’s thrown for three touchdowns, but it might’ve said something about Tennessee’s faith in him that in a turning-point type of moment Saturday night, the Titans took Tannehill off the field. That came midway through the third quarter, when they had third and goal from the three, leading 14-6. That’s a scenario where franchise quarterbacks make their money; instead, Tannehill made way for Mariota, and the Titans snapped it directly to Henry.
If Tennessee loses either of the next two games, it’s going to come away from this season feeling like it’s on the cusp. They have the best running back in football, and can retain him with a new contract or at least the franchise tag. They’re a smart, balanced team with a decent defense, and they’re well-coached.
It’s possible that they could look at things and see an immediate window where the only limitation might be a quarterback capable of making the right play, protecting the ball, and rising to the occasion when the big moment comes. So, enter Brady?
He reportedly has a good relationship with Vrabel, his former teammate. Beyond Henry the Titans have two good, young receivers, and they have quality at tight end. Football Outsiders rated theirs as the worst pass-protecting line in the NFL, but the Titans are expected to have more than $50 million in salary cap room this offseason.
Tennessee might also learn a lesson from one of its divisional foes. Back in 2015, the Jaguars were in a similar spot. They seemed to be building something, having reached the AFC championship on the back of a strong running game, solid coaching, and a good defense. Based on that, they continued forward with Blake Bortles, and it wasn’t long before his deficiencies were exposed. The team took a step back, and hasn’t again reached that peak. Bortles spent this past season as the Rams’ backup, while the Jaguars’ QB position is presently in flux.
If the Titans saw that, and seek to learn from it, they could resist the temptation to fall in love with the 31-year-old Tannehill and instead seek to add a more stable, proven veteran. Even at 43, Brady would seem to fill that need rather nicely while pursuing ring No. 7 in Nashville.
The AFC isn’t beyond hope.
When the obituaries were being written for the Patriots’ dynasty, they were printed with the supposition that the balance of power in the AFC had shifted in a big way.
Baltimore and Kansas City were the top two seeds this season. Both beat New England. Both have young, exciting, skilled star quarterbacks. Both have established head coaches whose systems are proven and entrenched.
They were on one level. The Pats were on the next.
Then the divisional round provided evidence to the contrary. The Ravens were blasted out of the playoffs for the second straight season, leaving them in a prove-it-to-me state for at least another year. Meanwhile, the Chiefs’ shortcomings were apparent en route to Kansas City sliding into a 24-point hole before exploding back to beat the Texans.
The brilliance of Patrick Mahomes is almost beyond reproach at this point, and both Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill are matchup nightmares. But if the opponent hadn’t been the Texans and one of the league’s worst passing defenses (29th in yards), KC’s disastrous start in all three phases might not have been so easily overcome. Houston wasn’t capable of pushing back once the ball started rolling down the hill.
Last January the Patriots were capable. And even now, they’re not necessarily all that far off from the team they were then. In fact, three of the four teams still standing have played their way into championship weekend with an offense based around run-pass balance and a good defense. In the first six playoff games this season, only two of the 12 participants scored more than 20 points in regulation.
The Pats beat the Rams last February on the strength of their running game, defense, and ability to minimize mistakes. They’re still built to win that way. And that recipe has proven to work over the past two playoff weekends.
Now is not the time to concede the conference to the up-and-comers by pressing the reset button this spring.
A wild weekend for Belichick’s tree
The Patriots have been at the epicenter of the NFL for two decades now — and this weekend was no different, particularly those with connections as limbs on Bill Belichick’s coaching tree.
Joe Judge, a Pats assistant as recently as a week ago, was introduced as the new Giants’ head coach late last week. The Pats will lose him, but unless another job opens surprisingly, they won’t be losing offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels because he was passed over for the head job in Cleveland.
Tennessee’s win continued to make Vrabel look like one of the league’s next coaching stars, and shutting down the Ravens’ top-ranked offense was also a credit to Dean Pees, former Patriots and now Titans defensive coordinator.
That tandem came out looking a lot better than the pair of ex-Pats at the helm in Houston. Long-ago New England DC Romeo Crennel operated haplessly as the Chiefs steamrolled his defense for touchdowns on seven straight possessions — and, still, Crennel didn’t come out of Kansas City looking as bad as Bill O’Brien.
His Texans started well, obviously, but by the end of the day the team’s effort continued its trend of playing at least one brutal half in every playoff game. He expedited that process when his team tried a fake punt from deep in its own territory while leading 24-7 in the second quarter, and effectively poured lighter fluid on a flame that had just barely graduated from a spark. In 3:24, Houston’s lead went from 24-0 to 24-21, and while the aggressiveness was probably justified by the explosiveness of the Chiefs’ attack, some times are better than others for calculated risks.
O’Brien miscalculated, permanently giving away the game’s momentum and further raising questions about whether the Texans have the right coach in charge. Houston has a good quarterback, a star receiver, and some nice pieces. But what’s less clear is whether it has made progress, or closed the gap on the conference’s true contenders.
Ever year that passes without postseason proof his Texans are making positive gains, O’Brien’s fate seems to teeter even more in territory that’s somewhere between being fired and turning into the next Marvin Lewis as the personification of NFL coaching purgatory.
Rookie WR talent puts pressure on Harry
If any individual Patriots player should’ve been feeling pressure as we watched the divisional playoffs from afar, it was receiver N’Keal Harry.
His own rookie campaign was disrupted by injury, and limited to 14 catches for 126 yards. There were also a number of instances where he and Brady looked to be on very different pages, resulting in a combination of an interception, a smattering of missed connections, and more than a few angry glares.
It wasn’t exactly the payout the Pats had to be looking for when they spent the 32nd overall pick on Harry last April, and the reliability and responsibility held by other first-year wideouts across the league underscores how important it will be for Harry to elevate in time for next season.
Deebo Samuel, taken five picks after Harry, is a critical piece of the 49ers passing game. A.J. Brown had a 1,000-yard season for the Titans. Mecole Hardman routinely uses his speed to make an impact for the Chiefs as both a receiver and return man. And DK Metcalf totaled 219 yards in the Seahawks’ two playoff tilts.
Brown, Hardman, and Metcalf all joined Samuel as second-round picks — Metcalf selected with the pick the Pats traded to Seattle for choices that became Chase Winovich and Hjalte Froholdt. All four of them look like building blocks at an important position, as does Hollywood Brown, who the Ravens took a few selections before Harry went to the Pats, and who racked up 126 yards Saturday night.
There’s a lot that the Patriots need to figure out in the months to come, particularly when it comes time to build their team for 2020. If Harry can at least get to the level of his peers, and become a key piece for a deep playoff team, it would help that list to become far more manageable.