Rehashing Patriots playoff losses has become a rite of winter in New England, like skating on the Frog Pond or territorially claiming parking spaces with household items.
In the wake of the Patriots’ disheartening 28-13 AFC Championship game loss to the Baltimore Ravens last Sunday there has been a search for the common thread that has led to the unraveling of the Patriots’ Super Bowl-or-bust seasons in 2007, 2010, 2011 and this year.
My feeling is that as vital as any personnel additions or decisions the Patriots make this offseason is changing their mentality.
If there is a common yarn from the Patriots’ playoff losses from 2007 to now is a lack of explosive plays in the running game, an inability to physically impose their will on opponents when it matters the most.
In the Patriots’ losses to the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLII in the 2007 season, the Ravens in the 2009 playoffs, the New York Jets in the 2010 playoffs, the Giants again in Super Bowl XLVI last season and the Ravens this season, they’ve failed to produce a single rush of 20 yards or more.
The longest rush was 17 yards by BenJarvus Green-Ellis in Super Bowl XLVI.
The Patriots’ longest rush in Sunday’s loss to the Ravens was 9 yards. That’s a familiar number. It also represented the long run in the 33-14 beatdown Baltimore put on the Patriots in the ’09 postseason.
In the shocking 28-21 AFC divisional loss to Vociferous Rex and the Jets during the 2010 season, the Patriots had a long run of 11 (twice), but that came on handoffs to wide receivers Julian Edelman and Brandon Tate. The long run by a running back that day was a 10-yarder by Green-Ellis.
The paucity of big plays in the running game in these losses is a particularly incisive point because all these teams basically abandoned their base defenses to defend Tom Brady. They put an extra defensive back or two on the field and dared the Patriots to run.
As colleague Greg A. Bedard pointed out in his excellent film review of the Patriots-Ravens AFC title game clash, Baltimore played just three snaps of base defense all game.
Quoth the Ravens gameplan: “Run on us if you can.”
At the beginning of the season, Brady said that the Patriots had made a pledge to be able to run the football against what he termed lighter fronts, defensive alignments that sacrifice a linebacker or a down lineman for an extra defensive back
“You know we’ve made a commitment to running the football and you saw it today,” said Brady, after the Patriots rushed for 162 yards in the season-opener against Tennessee on Sept. 9.
“...When you can control the tempo of the game, it really helps out the rest of the team. It helps special teams. It helps defense. You just can’t drop back and throw it 50 times a game. Right around 30 passes a game is where you want to be.”
The Patriots threw it 54 times against the Ravens on Sunday.
This is not a Brady bailout. His performance was tepid at best against Baltimore, a team that seems to be TB12’s Kryptonite.
But do you know how many touchdown passes Brady threw during the Patriots’ first Super Bowl run, the Improbable Dream of 2001? One more than Bono, whose band will always be the musical accompaniment for that memorable win.
Brady threw a TD pass to David Patten in Super Bowl XXXVI. That’s it. Cue the blaring U2.
The first multiple-TD pass playoff game of his career didn’t come until Super Bowl XXXVIII against the Carolina Panthers. Brady tossed three touchdown passes in that game, and undressed the Panthers secondary like they were part of Janet Jackson’s breast-baring halftime show with Justin Timberlake.
(By the way, Ms. Jackson did for Super Bowl halftime shows what avaricious Wall Street bankers did for sub-prime loans.)
In their first Super Bowl win, the Patriots averaged 5.3 yards per rush against the St. Louis Rams. Antowain Smith had a long run of 17 yards, but Patten, a wide receiver, had a 22-yarder.
The second Big Game had a big run of 23 yards by Kevin Faulk on a day when the Patriots, despite averaging just 3.6 yards per carry, ran the ball 35 times against Carolina.
The trophy trilogy, completed against Philadelphia, featured a 25-yard run from Corey Dillon, who rushed for a franchise record 1,635 yards in 2004.
There is a common thread in the Patriots’ playoff losses. It’s the fraying of the commitment to and execution of the running game.
So, blame Brady all you want. But the formula for winning championships now is not the one the Patriots used earlier in the millennium.
Like their playoff opponents, that’s something the Patriots can’t run away from.