The New England Patriots’ bid for a second consecutive Super Bowl title ended Sunday in Denver with another loss to the Broncos in the AFC Championship Game, the second time this has happened in three years. There’ll be no duck boat parade, no fifth ring for Tom Brady and no awkward dance party at Bob Kraft’s summer home.
The blame pie can be cut into multiple slices for this one and no one is immune, not even the Hall of Fame coach, the three-time Super Bowl MVP quarterback, or the historically accurate kicker who always seems to come up aces when the team needs him most.
As far as losses go, this was a complete team effort and it’ll have immediate and long-term effects on the future of the organization (offensive line coach Dave DeGuglielmo became the first fall guy late Monday night, fired after just two seasons on the job). Below are a few important takeaways from a season that began with so much promise and ended with another thud in the Mile High City.
1. This one’s on Bill Belichick. Sunday’s game should’ve never been played in Denver.
Keep in mind this team started the season 10-0, an offensive juggernaut that just rolled through opponents with ease. This was billed as the Tom Brady F.U. Tour, payback for what he and the organization had to deal with during the offseason “Deflategate” saga.
Even with the first loss to Denver in November, it seemed unlikely the AFC Championship would be played anywhere but Foxboro. The Patriots were a shoo-in for the No. 1 seed until they lost 4 of their last 6 games, an uncharacteristic slump for a team that has historically played its best in November and December during the Belichick era.
Still, all they needed to do was one of their final two games against the Jets or Dolphins to wrap up homefield advantage throughout the playoffs, something they should’ve been able to do simply by rolling out of bed on Sunday morning. They gave away the first game against the Jets by electing to kick off after winning the coin toss in overtime and then went into shutdown mode the following week against the Dolphins, resting a few starters along the way and showing no willingness to overexert key players who were clear injury risks heading into the postseason.
As a result, the Patriots lost both games and punted away the No. 1 seed to Denver, a team they’ve had trouble beating on the road since the Tony Eason era. Maybe the Patriots figured they could beat anybody anywhere as long as they were 100 percent healthy. They were wrong. They never win in Denver, especially in the postseason, and now they’ve lost 6 of their 8 in the Mile High City, including 2 of the last 3 conference title games.
Blame Belichick, starting with that ridiculous rugby kick against the Eagles that led to an unforgivable loss at home in which the Patriots coughed up a two-touchdown lead. The overtime fiasco against the Jets, the lackadaisical effort in Miami – it all adds up to a disappointing finish to the regular season that probably cost the Patriots another trip to the Super Bowl.
They’d have had their hands full with Denver in any city or state, but it’s hard to imagine the Broncos getting the breaks they did at Gillette Stadium. Venue is king in the NFL and the Patriots shot themselves in the foot by not going all out for the No. 1 seed.
2. If you don’t think the venue was a factor Sunday, consider this:
a. The Patriots’ offensive line had no answer for the Denver pass rush thanks in large part to the fact they couldn’t use a hard count at the line of scrimmage because the crowd noise was too loud whenever they had the ball.
As a result, they went with a silent count, which the Broncos picked up on immediately. From there, it was open season for Denver. Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware treated New England’s offensive line like a turnstile, hitting Brady 20 times, the most any quarterback has been hit in an NFL game since 2006.
Would being able to use a hard count have suppressed Denver’s pass rush? Maybe. The Broncos are so good defensively it’s hard to imagine them getting tripped up too often by a hard count, but it might’ve helped enough to keep Brady for a few plays, which, in a game decided by 2 points, might’ve been all he needed.
At the end of the day, the Broncos deserve all the credit. They rarely rushed more than four defenders, which means New England had numbers up front and still couldn’t do the job. To paraphrase the old football adage, if your five can’t block their four, you’re in trouble.
b. Denver is known for its high altitude, which is something all visiting teams have to prepare for and deal with when traveling to play the Broncos.
Tight end Rob Gronkowski had trouble dealing with it early in the third quarter to the point where he needed to come off the field following a critical 31-yard catch in order to breathe in oxygen through a mask and get a massage on the sideline to alleviate the pain from leg cramps.
Gronkowski sat out the rest of that drive, which sputtered just outside the red zone, forcing the Patriots to instead settle for a field goal to trim Denver’s lead to 5. Maybe if Gronkowski is on the field for that rest of that series they reach the end zone. Who knows? The point is the conditions played a factor. Altitude and cramping wouldn’t have been a factor in Foxboro.
3. The irony of Stephen Gostkowski missing his first extra point attempt in a decade Sunday and his first since the NFL pushed back the spot of the ball on PATs from the 2-yard line to the 15 is the fact Belichick himself was one of the biggest supporters of the aforementioned change.
For years, Belichick has begged the league to do something about the extra point, calling it a “non-competitive” play because kickers routinely combined to hit more than 99 percent of the attempts under the old role. He actually wanted the spot to be pushed back to the 30 at one point, but the league decided the 15-yard line was far enough.
Belichick finally got his wish and it came back to haunt him Sunday with the usually reliable Gostkowski missed wide right on the PAT following the Patriots’ first touchdown of the game. Because of that, they needed a two-point conversion to tie the game with 12 seconds remaining following Gronkowski’s touchdown, which failed when Aqib Talib batted away Brady’s pass attempt to Julian Edelman.
4. The Patriots are routinely lauded for their roster construction, and rightfully so, but they have some major holes offensively – holes they created by ignoring the important of these positions – that need to be addressed in the offseason.
Considering 5-foot-10 running back James White was targeted 16 times Sunday – more than Gronkowski – with many of them coming on deep passing routes that are not at all conducive to his skill set, it’s time the Patriots invest in a legitimate No. 1 receiver, a tall, rangy, speedy deep threat that can run outside routes and give opposing defenses something else to think about other than Gronkowski and Edelman.
Brandon LaFell obviously isn’t that guy. After catching 74 passes for 953 yards last year in his first season with the Patriots, LaFell caught just 37 balls during an injury-plagued 2015. He wasn’t targeted once during Sunday’s game, slipping to No. 4 on the depth chart behind Keshawn Martin.
The Patriots tried to turn him into a deep threat during the regular season when Gronkowski, Edelman and Danny Amendola missed various games due to injury, but he and Brady simply couldn’t connect whenever they tried to hit a home run – and, if you watched enough games, you know they tried it a lot, perhaps too many times considering it never came close to working.
It’s hard to imagine LaFell back in Foxboro next year, even with another year left on his contract. The Patriots haven’t invested high draft picks in wide receivers since 2013 when they selected Aaron Dobson in the second round and Josh Boyce in the fourth. Both have been failures, perhaps explaining why they’ve shied away from reaching too high for pass-catchers in the draft.
If you want to go back further than that, they used a third-round pick on Taylor Price in 2010, another third-rounder on Brandon Tate in 2009 and a second-rounder in 2006 on Chad Jackson. Remember those guys?
Nobody else does either. Keep in mind, too, they grabbed Edelman somewhere in between those draft-day busts with a seventh-round pick in 2009, so it’s easy to see why they’ve changed their philosophy through the years, but since Randy Moss wore out his welcome eight years ago, Brady hasn’t had anyone worthy of throwing bombs to other than Gronkowski and that’s simply not enough anymore.
The same goes for the running back position. Understanding how the modern-day NFL works with the rules favoring quarterbacks and promoting gaudy, over-indulged passing numbers, it’s easy to ignore the running back, but you need something to throw off the scent for opposing pass rushers.
The Patriots attempted to piece together their running game with Dion Lewis, a former fifth-round pick and NFL nomad who hadn’t played since 2012 prior to earning a spot on this year’s 53-man roster, and LeGarrette Blount, a one-dimensional veteran retread best suited for garbage time when the opposing team just doesn’t feel like tackling anymore.
The plan worked for a few weeks as Lewis took the league by storm with his elusive, shifty running style until he blew out his ACL in November, no surprise considering injuries were his downfall in his previous three NFL stops. Blount went down, too, with a hip injury, again not a shocker for a player who has only played a full season twice in six years.
Much like their approach with wide receivers, the Patriots historically don’t invest heavily in running backs in the draft, at least not in the first or second round. They’ve only drafted one running back in four years (White, 4th round, 2014) and haven’t selected one higher than the third round since using a second-round pick on Shane Vereen in 2011.
It’s easy to understand why they’d be scared off following the Laurence Maroney disaster, and running backs typically don’t have long shelf-lives in the NFL, but the Patriots can’t afford to go into another big game next year with absolute no running game whatsoever, so if that means they need to rethink their draft strategy or scan the free-agent market for something more than a reclamation project (see: Steven Jackson), the process needs to start now.
They’re too talented offensively with the Brady-Gronkowski-Edelman corps to leave themselves so barren at wide receiver and running back. Those three can’t do it alone.
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