In the aftermath of something like this, the truth sits somewhere in the rubble, buried in piles of questions and missed opportunities. Sifting through the debris can take quite some time, and in the NFL, there is rarely any rest for the weary.
So what do you think: In the modern NFL, are the Patriots really that close to a championship? Or was this postseason some indication that they are as flawed – or more so – than the other teams who consider themselves to be at the top of the league hierarchy?
Where the Patriots go from here remains to be seen, but let’s start with the positives. In 2009, the Patriots were bounced in the wild-card round of the playoffs. In 2010, they were bounced in the divisional round. This year, they made it all the way to the Super Bowl before succumbing to the Giants by a 21-17 score last night at Lucas Oil Stadium in a wonderfully competitive and entertaining game that ended in pure heartbreak.
The point is that the Patriots are getting better, for sure, though they are not yet where Bill Belichick and Tom Brady expect them to be.
What last night reaffirmed for us, if anything, is that the Patriots still have some work to do, particularly if they expect to maximize the final years of Brady’s (and Belichick’s?) career. Last month, Brady himself told us the clock is ticking. With or without a healthy Rob Gronkowski, the Patriots need a viable receiving threat outside the numbers and they need help on defense, at least if they expect to win Super Bowls.
This year, more than any other in recent memory, the NFL affirmed for us that regular season play and postseason play are two entirely different things. Balance still wins. The NFL seems to have become a jazzed-up version of the Arena League during the regular season, no fewer than six quarterbacks this season passing for greater than 4,600 yards. The list includes Drew Brees, Brady, Matthew Stafford, Aaron Rodgers, Philip Rivers and Eli Manning, the last of whom had easily the best defense among the group.
So guess who won the championship?
Of course, New England fans are likely to point out that the Giants’ defense during the regular season was marginally better than the Patriots’, but that’s missing the point. In their final six games this year, the Giants played the Jets, Cowboys, Falcons, Packers, Niners and Patriots. All of those clubs ranked in the top half of the league in scoring, the Packers, Patriots and Falcons finishing a respective, first, third and seventh. New York held that group to an average of 14 points per game, the large majority of that play coming during a postseason in which NFL officials generally swallowed the whistles and actually started letting people play football again.
To their credit, the Patriots played better defense, too. And yet, in the Super Bowl, the New England defense did not force a single three-and-out. New York’s eight possessions lasted 10, nine, 10, nine, 13, 11, 10 and nine snaps, which is why the Giants held the ball for a whopping 37:05, a number that would have been higher had New York drained the clock properly at the end of the game.
You know that familiar Patriots argument that points – and not yards – are what matter? Horse feathers. The yards mattered last night. They mattered because the Patriots couldn’t get Eli Manning off the field and, when they did, New York punter Steve Weatherford was working from no worse than his own 45-yard line with three of his four punts coming from the Patriots’ 43, 42 and 41.
As a result, New England’s average starting field position last night was its own 16-yard line. Maybe that doesn’t matter during the regular season against teams like the Broncos and Bills, but it matters during the playoffs.
The bottom line is that the Giants completely dictated the tempo and tenor of the game because they controlled the ball - pretty much on both sides. Had the Giants not committed at least two drive-killing penalties, the game wouldn’t have been so close.
For Belichick, the challenge now is to fix that, be that through acquisitions in the linebacking corps or secondary. Jerod Mayo is a nice tackler, but as the Giants’ first touchdown last night proved, he isn’t exactly Derrick Brooks when it comes to defending the pass. The Giants ran and threw on the Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI, and their ability to do so allowed New York to walk away with a second Super Bowl victory over the Patriots in five seasons.
Again, let’s say this in no uncertain terms so that we’re all on the same page: the Patriots are getting better again. Nonetheless, last night’s game offers further perspective on the AFC Championship victory over the Ravens, who were saying the same thing two weeks ago that the Patriots are saying today: If only our receiver could have held onto the ball. If we’re going to suggest that the Ravens need to improve their offense (or, more specifically, their passing game) to win a Super Bowl, then we need to say the same about the Patriots defense.
For New England this year, remember, the road to the Super Bowl was impeccably paved. Until the victory over the Ravens in the AFC Championship, the Patriots did not beat a single team that finished the year with a winning record. The Patriots earned both their first-round bye and their divisional round matchup with the Broncos, but there is now significant doubt as to whether that road is the best way to win a Super Bowl anymore.
The Giants, after all, were the No. 4 seed in the NFC, though they possessed a worse regular season record (9-7) than any team but the Broncos (8-8). New York subsequently beat the NFC’s top two seeds, Green Bay and San Francisco, on the road. Sunday’s win also gave the Giants a pair of wins this season over the Patriots, one on the road, one at neutral site.
In winning the Super Bowl last year, the Green Bay Packers were a No. 6 seed, though similarly blessed with balance. And if you want to add 2007 into the mix, the Giants were a No. 5 seed that similarly marched through a four-game postseason scheduled once deemed to be a minefield.
But not anymore.
Now, come playoff time in the NFL, the most balanced team can win four games far more easily than an imbalanced team can win three, something becoming indisputably to those of us in New England and, perhaps, even Bill Belichick.