FOXBORO — The Patriots struggles on offense finally buried them, falling to the Tennessee Titans 20-13 at Gillette Stadium on Saturday night in the first round of the NFL playoffs.
The loss ends a streak of eight consecutive seasons in the AFC Championship Game and might’ve ended Tom Brady’s career with the Patriots, but we’ll have all offseason to discuss that.
The Patriots are going home early because of a fatally flawed offense that couldn’t find the right mix of players to surround Tom Brady and Julian Edelman, and Saturday night was a microcosm of the season on that side of the ball.
With the Titans defense scheming to take out Edelman, the Patriots didn’t have other playmakers that could step up to win one-on-one matchups in the passing game.
Brady finished the game four-of-16 for 38 yards throwing to the trio of first-round pick N’Keal Harry, trade deadline acquisition Mohamed Sanu, and Phillip Dorsett, highlighting a lack of pass-catching talent outside of Edelman.
And as was the case all season, the Pats shot themselves in the foot with untimely drops, bad penalties, poor execution and predictable play-calling in critical situations.
The end result was 13 points, five-for-13 on third down, and one-for-three in the red zone.
“We had some opportunities and just weren’t able to score enough points,” head coach Bill Belichick said after the loss. “They made some key plays in critical situations, in the red area, on third down. All those plays were probably the difference in the game.”
Without further ado, here are ten things we learned as New England exits the playoffs on Wild Card Weekend:
1. Patriots Offense Can’t Overcome Self-Inflicted Wounds
The Patriots offense committed plenty of errors that prevented them from winning on Saturday night, but we’ll go over a few of the egregious ones here.
With a chance to go up 17-7 in the first half, the Titans changed the game with a critical goal-line stand with the Patriots having three tries from the one-yard line to punch it in for six.
For reasons that only Josh McDaniels knows, the Patriots ran the same play on three consecutive tries: wide zone. Mostly going opposite the strength of the formation, the Patriots tried to bully their way into the end zone, something they typically do in that situation.
My issue isn’t with running the football, the Patriots run with more success on the goal line than most teams over the last two decades, but the play calls were incredibly predictable.
The Pats are a massive wide zone rushing attack from inside the five. The Titans and Mike Vrabel knew the play was coming, and the Pats still ran wide zone three straight times.
McDaniels’s inability to create touchdowns in the red area with the scheme is my biggest gripe with him this season, along with the overall execution and lack of development by younger players.
The Patriots didn’t just shoot themselves in the foot in the red zone, though, making some costly errors in the open field that cost them chances to win the game as well.
To start the second half, the Pats were driving, but two incompletions set up a third and ten. On the third and ten play, Brady stayed patient against a three-man rush to find Ben Watson for a 38-yard completion. However, the play got wiped out by an ineligible man downfield penalty on right guard Shaq Mason. Mason’s perspective after the game made sense. When he saw Jurrell Casey (no. 99) running across towards Brady, his instincts told him to block the Titans Pro Bowler, but it put him in an illegal position.
Lastly, one of the best playoff performers in NFL history let the Patriots down in a critical spot, with Julian Edelman picking a terrible time for his league-leading 11th drop of the season.
On the play, the Patriots finally get Edelman in an off-man situation with some room to operate. He runs a quick speed out to the sideline and has a first down reception, but the well-thrown pass bounces off his hands and hits the turf, stalling a potential game-winning drive.
With failures in the red zone (one-for-three), and drops and penalties negating big plays, Saturday night was a summation of the grenade offense that we saw all year long.
2. Bill Belichick’s “Cowardly” Decisions to Punt the Football
If you want to know the state of the Pats offense, look no further than the head coach, who told us all season that he was going to rely on the defense to win football games.
NE decided to punt to TEN from the TEN 47 on 4th & 3 with 12:52 remaining in the 4th while losing 13 to 14.
With a Surrender Index of 29.92, this punt ranks at the 99.2nd percentile of cowardly punts of the 2019 season, and the 98th percentile of all punts since 2009.
— Surrender Index 90 (@surrender_idx90) January 5, 2020
According to the Surrender Index, Belichick’s decision to punt from the Tennessee 47-yard line on fourth and three with 12:52 remaining was in the 99th percentile of cowardly punts in the 2019 season.
Belichick’s decision to punt there shouldn’t surprise anyone, as he became one of the least aggressive head coaches in the NFL this season, opting to trust his defense over the offense.
NE decided to punt to TEN from the NE 37 on 4th & 4 with 3:17 remaining in the 4th while losing 13 to 14.
With a Surrender Index of 12.29, this punt ranks at the 96th percentile of cowardly punts of the 2019 season, and the 94th percentile of all punts since 2009.
— Surrender Index 90 (@surrender_idx90) January 5, 2020
Later on, the Pats head coach did it again, punting with 3:17 remaining in the game despite trailing 14-13, ranking in the 96th percentile of cowardly punts.
For years, we’ve heard that you don’t beat the Patriots by playing scared. Well, Belichick wasn’t necessarily scared, but he never trusted his offense, and it showed in his decision making.
3. Derrick Henry’s 204 Scrimmage Yards a Record Against Belichick in the Playoffs
The Titans running back became the first player with 200-plus scrimmage yards against a Belichick defense during his team as head coach of the Patriots.
In the first half, Henry was unstoppable, tallying 8.5 yards per touch behind a Titans offensive line that was mauling the Patriots’ front. Tennessee deployed its outside-zone running scheme to perfection in the opening two quarters, blowing the Pats off the ball.
The Pats played a few different fronts but stuck mostly to their 4-3 tilt (Super Bowl 53 game plan) and a 5-2 base. In both instances, the Titans attacked defensive end Deatrich Wise, who was in the game to give the Patriots another lineman with his hand in the dirt. It was a game of Where’s Waldo, as they ran right at no. 91, and Wise got blown off the ball as he did here by left tackle Taylor Lewan.
In the second half, the Patriots stuck to their tilt front more often and played with better fundamentals to hold Henry to 3.5 yards per rush after the break.
The Patriots started to get some penetration on the edge, forcing Henry back towards the middle of the field by getting John Simon and Kyle Van Noy up the field outside. The Titans want to run the ball on the edges, so the Pats knew they needed to be stronger outside.
Although they were able to stop the bleeding in the second half, it was too little too late for the Patriots’ run defense.
4. Tom Brady Was Better Than the Stats Suggest
A quick look at the box score and scoreboard would tell you that Brady’s 20th season ended because the six-time Super Bowl champion played poorly on Saturday night.
Brady’s completion percentage was below 55 percent, tying a career-high with six such games this season, and for the seventh time, he averaged below six yards per pass attempt.
However, Brady played relatively well despite the offense’s struggles, throwing only three passes deemed “uncatchable” in my charting, throwing some downfield seeds into tight windows.
On Brady’s best completion of the night, the Patriots finally got Edelman in single coverage on a third down. Edelman beat Logan Ryan in his stem by angling his route to attack Ryan’s outside leverage then breaking outside into a cleared out sideline. Two Titans incorrectly go to Ben Watson in the flat, but they make it a tough throw, and Brady threads the needle to hit an open Edelman behind the dropping defenders.
The Pats quarterback also threw an absolute bullet on a go ball to Sanu that was broken up by Titans safety Kenny Vaccaro at the last second, a great throw that would’ve been a touchdown.
Both of those throws serve as ammo against anyone that thinks the 42-year-old has lost it physically; he can still zip it when he needs to and isn’t in a noticeable physical decline.
Brady and the Patriots have some difficult decisions ahead of them this offseason, but there shouldn’t be any conversations about Brady’s ability to play quarterback in this league.
5. Julian Edelman Drops Critical Pass in Disappointing Performance
The night started on a good note for Edelman, who scored New England’s only touchdown and created some early opportunities for his teammates, mainly with pre-snap motion.
In the first half, the Patriots offense was clicking, scoring on three of their first five possessions while averaging nearly six yards per offensive play.
With the Titans playing mostly man coverage, Pats offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels caused some breakdowns by motioning Edelman before the snap to force the defense to adjust.
The Patriots use pre-snap motion on passing plays to give Brady a coverage indicator; if somehow follows Edelman, that signals man coverage to the quarterback.
On a third-down conversion by James White, the Patriots bring Edelman in tight to the formation after he starts on the boundary. Edelman then throws a “crack” block on the end of the line player, which should’ve triggered a “crack replace” for Edelman’s man (no. 35). Tremaine Brock doesn’t replace the edge force despite Edelman’s block, leaving a soft edge for White to easily pick up the first down.
To cap off that drive, the Patriots punched the ball in for six by handing it off to Edelman on a fly sweep. With the Titans once again in man coverage, it’s on Edelman’s man to chase him across the formation and make the tackle. The play hits quickly, and Logan Ryan collides with a teammate, giving Edelman a walk-in score.
The fun for Edelman stopped there with the Titans defense dropping zone defenders between the numbers to cut off all of his in-breaking routes while the corners played outside leverage.
McDaniels seemingly ran out of tricks to get Edelman involved and work off of the attention he drew in coverage, and that’s a theme for the Pats OC in the second half of the season.
And as we covered above, he also picked the worst time to have his league-leading 11th drop of the season.
6. Patriots Secondary Delivers Nearly-Flawless Performance
The Pats secondary will face scrutiny for two plays that didn’t go their way, but they held Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill to a grand total of 72 passing yards.
To rub salt in the wound, the last quarterback to win a playoff game throwing for 72 yards or less was also against the Patriots; Joe Flacco in the 2009 Wild Card round. Funny the symmetry there.
The Patriots had two plans depending on the formation and personnel by the Titans. In shotgun situations or obvious passing plays, they stuck to man coverage as is their bread-and-butter.
The Pats played divider leverage in the slot against AJ Brown and Corey Davis, which means the corner will play with outside leverage knowing he has inside help from a post safety.
Here, the Patriots bracket Brown inside, forcing Tannehill to test JC Jackson on a vertical route by Corey Davis. As he has all season, Jackson breaks up the deep pass to force a punt.
But more importantly, they shut down Tennessee’s potent play-action passing attack with a similar game plan to Super Bowl 53 against the Rams and Sean McVay.
Behind their 4-3 tilt front, the Patriots ran a coverage known as three-buzz, which is a cover-three zone with a safety dropping down to “buzz” to crossers or other intermediate routes in a robber position. With the safety taking away the crossing patterns, and the three deep defenders checking the post, the Titans’ patented post/over concept was negated.
The Patriots’ secondary gave up two costly plays, one late and one early, with defensive back Terrence Brooks surrendering some tough completions into his coverage.
But it’s hard to fault them for the result on Saturday night in what was an excellent performance.
7. N’Keal Harry’s Rookie Season Ends With a Dud
The Pats’ first-round pick wasn’t going to be a savior, but his glimmers of potential weren’t enough juice to get the offense going once he got in the field in Week 11.
The Patriots could’ve done more to get Harry involved, focusing mostly on downfield routes that led to a very unproductive stat line of two catches on seven targets for 21 yards on Saturday.
Harry did get one carry for seven yards on a jet sweep, but the packaged plays designed to get him ball-carrying opportunities were not apart of the game plan against the Titans.
Plus, Harry’s growing pains as a young receiver in a complicated offense were once again present.
Here, Harry gets an earful from Brady for pulling up on his route. There’s a little bit of contact with Brock downfield, but instead of powering through, Harry gives up on the play as the ball falls incomplete.
As we turn the page to next season, Harry’s offseason should be spent developing consistent releases and an in-breaking route to offset the vertical element to his game.
If Harry can come back in 2020 with a slant or under route as in his arsenal, that’ll open up more opportunities downfield, forcing defensive backs to respect his ability to break inside.
8. Patriots’ Offensive Line and Running Game Aren’t Enough to Save Offense
Based on my initial viewing, the offensive line was the lone bright spot in the loss offensively, with the Titans only managing four hits on Brady and the Pats averaging 4.5 yards per rush.
The Patriots broke off some explosive runs in the first half, tallying four rushing attempts of over ten yards, thanks to some terrific blocking by the left side of the offensive line.
On the longest run of the day, a 25-yarder by Sony Michel, the Patriots got terrific blocks from a few different players. The Patriots double-team at the point of attack with left tackle Isaiah Wynn and guard Joe Thuney and use tight end Matt LaCosse to kick out the end. From there, it’s a straight shot up the field for fullback Elandon Roberts, who combines with Wynn to combo block the linebacker downfield to pave the way for Michel.
If you want a positive, the Patriots have a left tackle for 2020 and beyond in Isaiah Wynn. He was a mauler out there tonight in the running game and protected Brady’s blindside well.
Since Wynn’s return in Week 12, the Pats OL was starting to find a groove, with an improved running game and better metrics in pass protection as well.
Luckily for the rest of the league, the other components of the offense couldn’t get it together, because the Patriots were starting to click up front late in the season.
9. Patriots Trot Out Eight Different Personnel Groupings
Most of us will probably have gripes with McDaniels’s play-calling, but the Pats OC rotated through every personnel grouping the Patriots have in their arsenal. The Pats played most of the game out of 11-personnel, but they also incorporated packages with fullback Elandon Roberts, two tight ends, two running backs, four wide receivers, and tackle eligible plays in the loss. The Patriots searched for answers via personnel groupings all night, but couldn’t find anything that worked consistently enough to score points.
10. Play of the Game: Anthony Firkser Third-Down Conversion
As we alluded to earlier, the Pats defense gave up two critical plays through the air that ended up costing them in a game with very few things to separate the two teams.
Late in the fourth quarter, the Titans moved the chains with a great call against New England’s two-man coverage. The Patriots are in a two-deep man coverage with safety Terrence Brooks playing inside leverage against Titans tight end Anthony Firkser. The Titans ran an under/out combination to the boundary called bun or dag by most offenses. Brooks plays with inside leverage, expecting outside help from the deep safety, but Devin McCourty is too far away from the play to provide the necessary help to Brooks.
Firkser makes the catch, and the Patriots’ season was all but over from there.