The Patriots’ path back to the Super Bowl took an unexpected turn on Sunday with an embarrassing 27-24 loss to the Dolphins. That setback cost New England the no. 2 seed in the AFC and forces them to play in the wild-card round for the first time in a decade―giving an unusually shaky Patriots squad an unfamiliar hurdle to clear.
The Patriots have had their fair share of vulnerabilities and roster holes during nearly two decades of league dominance, so you won’t read another premature dynastic obituary here; with the legendary quarterback-coach duo of Tom Brady and Bill Belichick as a bedrock, New England has always seemed to find a way to overcome its problems by outscheming, outexecuting, or outwitting opponents year after year. That may well happen again this postseason―but the types of cracks we’d typically find in the Patriots’ facade looked more like crumbling fissures in the past month. With New England set to host a wild-card round matchup against a dangerous Titans team Saturday, the Patriots must overcome their most worrisome―and potentially fatal―flaws. Can Belichick, Brady, and the team’s top-tier defense overcome those issues and carry New England back to the Super Bowl?
New England has built a lasting empire in large part because of the team’s ability to adapt to the league’s ever-changing competitive landscape. As Ringer colleague Kevin Clark wrote in November 2018, the Patriots operate like a casino. They find multiple small but meaningful ways to gain an edge each year, whether through draft strategy, salary cap management, or their ability to stay ahead of the competition in schematic trends and in personnel acquisition and deployment.
New England has pioneered (or reintroduced and innovated) multiple leaguewide trends, including the heavy use of two-tight-end sets, the shotgun spread offense, and the use of hybrid schemes and players, among many others. It’s a copycat league, and no team has been plagiarized more in the past 20 years. In most seasons, those types of marginal edges would give the team the cushion it needs to cope with inevitable issues, and are a big reason New England has maintained its absurd decades-long consistency.
This year, the team’s edges are more difficult to identify. The offense, in particular, has suffered a noticeable drop in both explosiveness and efficiency, ending the regular season ranked 11th in Football Outsiders DVOA, its worst finish since 2003 (when it ranked 14th) and just the third time any Tom Brady–led group has failed to crack the top 10. A unit that’s typically nimble and adaptable has been neither in 2019; Brady, 42, has struggled to get on to the same page with the team’s young or newly arrived receivers, and even when he does have an open man, he’s launched far too many uncharacteristically inaccurate throws. Brady’s decision-making has been suspect at times this year, too, and the future Hall of Famer finished the year with decade lows (among full seasons) in touchdown passes (24), yards per attempt (6.6), and touchdown rate (3.9 percent).
The team’s lack of offensive punch was a problem in Sunday’s loss to the Dolphins. Brady took some of the responsibility for the collapse and for his inexplicable second-quarter pick-six to Eric Rowe. But there’s plenty of blame to go around for the team’s offensive struggles. New England’s front office has failed to surround its aging superstar with difference-making skill players: Receiver Julian Edelman remains Brady’s reliable (but banged-up) go-to guy, but the team’s repeated attempts to address the lack of receiver depth behind Edelman, both before and during the season, have been mostly fruitless. The Patriots dropped Josh Gordon midway through the season (he was later suspended while playing for the Seahawks), cut Antonio Brown shortly after signing him, and haven’t found anyone close to a replacement for Rob Gronkowski. The Mohamed Sanu trade has been a massive disappointment, and rookie N’Keal Harry remains a work in progress. That lack of depth hamstrung the team on Sunday: The Dolphins smartly double-teamed Edelman for most of the game, and as offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said afterward, “Trying to throw the ball into double coverage for a majority of the day is not a good formula.” With nowhere else to go, Sanu (three catches for 35 yards) and Phillip Dorsett (one catch for 50 yards) were Brady’s leading receivers, while linebacker Elandon Roberts caught a touchdown. Brady finished 16-of-29 for 221 yards, two touchdowns, and a pick against the Miami pass defense, which Football Outsiders rated as the fourth worst of all time.
The team’s run game is still rounding into form as well. The Patriots leaned on offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia’s highly versatile ground attack in its Super Bowl run last season, and Brady and Co. may need that unit to re-create some magic this postseason. New England’s ground game has been middling for most of the season (finishing 16th in rush DVOA), but that unit could be heating up just in time, with 100-plus-yard performances on the ground in five of its past six games after reaching that benchmark just three times in its first 10 games. With so few options in the passing attack, Brady may be forced to lean heavily on the running back troika of Sony Michel, Rex Burkhead, and James White to shoulder a big burden on offense.
Even the Patriots’ typically dependable special teams units have struggled this season. With longtime kicker Stephen Gostkowski on the shelf with a season-ending hip injury, New England was left to cycle through a series of shaky replacements at that crucial spot, and eventually landed on Nick Folk as the emergency fallback. The 35-year-old has connected on 14 of 17 field goal attempts since landing with the Patriots.
New England has been left leaning heavily on its top-tier defense. That group carried the Patriots to their 12-4 regular-season record, and rates among the league’s best in the most meaningful metrics, finishing first in points allowed (14.1 per game), yards allowed (275.9 per game), and in Football Outsiders DVOA. In fact, that unit can be lumped in with some of the most dominant defenses ever, and finished as the 16th best in DVOA history.
But no defense is perfect, and the few times this Patriots group has faltered, the rest of the team has struggled to pick up the slack. Lamar Jackson and the Ravens offense ran roughshod over New England back in Week 9, dropping 210 rushing yards and 30 points on what previously appeared to be an invincible unit. (Baltimore also got a fumble return touchdown from its defense in the 37-20 win.) Deshaun Watson carved up the New England defense in a Week 13 matchup, completing 18 of 25 passes for 234 yards and three touchdowns (with receiver DeAndre Hopkins adding a passing score of his own) in the 28-22 loss. Patrick Mahomes threw for 283 yards, a touchdown, and a pick in the team’s Week 14 loss to the Chiefs. And it certainly wasn’t encouraging to see Ryan Fitzpatrick pick apart the team’s blitz-heavy scheme in last week’s loss, with the veteran gunslinger finishing with 320 yards and leading a pivotal 13-play, 75-yard touchdown drive late in the game, which ended with a Mike Gesicki game-winner. New England played heavy doses of zone coverage in the secondary and repeatedly blitzed, but Fitzpatrick calmly hit his underneath outlets over the middle of the field―a strategy the Titans may look to emulate if the Patriots bring lots of pressure this week.
Even Defensive Player of the Year candidate Stephon Gilmore looked human against Miami, surrendering seven catches for 119 yards to DeVante Parker, which is the most receptions and yards he’s given up since becoming a Patriot in 2017, per NFL Next Gen Stats. After relying on the ability to generate turnovers for most of the year (the team finished second in the league with 36 takeaways), New England went a combined negative-3 in turnover margin in those four losses.
Recent history doesn’t look kindly on New England’s current predicament as a 3-seed: The Belichick-Brady Patriots have never played in the Super Bowl without a first-round bye, and zero teams that have played on wild-card weekend have advanced to the big game since the 2012 season. New England will have to go on the road if it beats the Titans to advance, meaning Brady and the team’s already out-of-sync passing game will have to deal with opponent crowd noise. And the immense pressure that comes with potential game-deciding field goals must be shouldered by Folk.
Put it all together, and the Patriots no longer feel invincible; for the first time in what seems like forever, it might actually be surprising if New England wins the Super Bowl. Perhaps that means it’ll do just that; using the doubters and a backs-to-the-wall mentality as a galvanizing force. It doesn’t hurt that this is a battle-hardened group that’s played plenty of postseason games.
The Patriots have accumulated an incredible amount of institutional knowledge about how to win during their decades-long run of domination. That knowledge will be put to the test this postseason: Belichick will have to work his game-planning and in-game-management magic; McDaniels will have to go above and beyond in manufacturing a passing game by throwing every schematic tweak and the kitchen sink at opponents; and Scarnecchia will have to squeeze every last bit of juice out of the ground game. Brady ... well, he’s got to get back to being something closer to the Brady of old. Perhaps most importantly, the defense has to play near-perfect ball and return to its turnover-creating ways.