Nov. 11 was a gloomy day in Nashville for the Patriots.
The Titans dominated the Patriots from the opening kickoff, and won easily, 34-10. Tom Brady bailed on throws in the face of the pass rush. He clumsily fell to the turf after catching a 6-yard pass. The defense couldn’t stop Marcus Mariota — of all quarterbacks — from marching up and down the field.
The Patriots were still 7-3 on the season, but they looked lost.
“There’s really not too much to say here this afternoon,” Bill Belichick said afterward. “We’ve got a lot of work to do here.”
“Hopefully, there’s more urgency as we go forward,” Brady said. “We’re not doing enough good things offensively. It’s really been 10 weeks.”
Fast-forward 12 weeks. Confetti is raining down on Brady and the Patriots as they celebrate their latest Super Bowl victory over the Rams. Julian Edelman is holding the Lombardi Trophy as the duck boats parade through Boston. Rob Gronkowski is the guest of honor on Jimmy Fallon’s show.
How did this happen? How did a team that went 3-5 on the road, wasn’t deep offensively, lost one of its best receivers in Josh Gordon, and couldn’t sack the quarterback win its sixth Super Bowl?
Let’s take a look at all of the factors that went right for the Patriots over the last 12 weeks and contributed to their remarkable turnaround:
■ They got three bye weeks.
This, to me, was the single biggest factor in the late-season improvement. The Patriots are a veteran-laden team, with the third-oldest roster entering the season, yet went 16 weeks without a break: six weeks of training camp and the first 10 weeks of the season.
But they then had three byes over their final 12 weeks: in Week 11, in the wild-card round, then before the Super Bowl.
Brady, dealing with a knee injury, and Gronkowski, dealing with back and ankle injuries, badly needed the rest. So did Sony Michel, who had been dealing with a knee injury. Shaq Mason and Marcus Cannon missed multiple games before the Week 11 bye, but the starting five on the offensive line started every game from Week 12 onward.
The Patriots seemed worn out that November day in Nashville. But by the time the Super Bowl came around, the players were relatively refreshed, both physically and mentally.
■ They got/stayed healthy.
One common denominator in the Patriots’ Super Bowl runs over the last five years: When they’re healthy, they win.
Whether it was good luck or good training, the Patriots avoided the injury bug this year. The only players lost to season-ending injuries were bit players or rookies: Eric Rowe, Ja’Whaun Bentley, Jeremy Hill, Isaiah Wynn.
The biggest key was health along the offensive line. The five starters played in at least 16 of 19 games, while Joe Thuney, Trent Brown, and David Andrews played in all 19 and at least 98 percent of the snaps on the season.
Gronkowski wasn’t always productive in the passing game, but he was available. He played in all nine games after the Week 11 bye, and 644 of 682 snaps (94.4 percent). In the playoffs, Gronk missed only 6 of 252 snaps.
Brady’s knee injury healed, he started stepping into throws again, and his completion percentage increased after the bye (65 to 67 percent), as did his yards per attempt (7.4 to 7.9).
Dont’a Hightower played in 18 of 19 games. Michel’s knee improved, and his rushing average increased from 4.3 yards to 4.7 after the bye. Rex Burkhead came off injured reserve. Dwayne Allen missed three games but came back for the final six.
■ Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels figured out his personnel.
It wasn’t a straight-line improvement, with the offense struggling in a loss to Pittsburgh in Week 15. But the Week 11 bye was the starting point of the Patriots morphing into a smash-mouth, power-football team straight from the 1970s.
They came out of their first bye with a solid road win over the Jets, rushing 36 times for 215 yards. They kept pounding the ball over the final nine games, and the result was a more efficient offense.
Look at the numbers:
|Weeks 1-10||12-SB LIII|
|Rushes per game||27.7||35.0|
|Yards per carry||3.9||4.6|
|Passes per game||37.4||33.3|
|Yards per attempt||7.5||8.0|
|Total yards per game||383.3||444.1|
|Yards per play||5.7||6.1|
|Offensive points per game||26.2||26.8|
Fullback James Develin played a big role in the resurgence of the running game. He played in 31.2 percent of snaps before the Week 11 bye, and 41.2 percent over the final nine games. He was the lead blocker on all nine of the Patriots’ postseason touchdown runs.
McDaniels also benefited from playing two quasi-exhibition games to end the season after losing Gordon, using easy contests against the Bills and Jets to reconfigure the Patriots’ identity.
And McDaniels was masterful all postseason, but especially in the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl, when he went to a little-practiced personnel package — a shotgun, five-wide formation with two tight ends and a fullback — to march the Patriots down the field for the winning touchdown.
■ Brian Flores went “Amoeba.”
Flores, meanwhile, seemed to overhaul his defensive philosophy, becoming more aggressive with blitzes and exotic with his looks. Starting in the Week 13 Vikings game, Flores went heavy with the “Amoeba” defense — moving players around before and after the snap, disguising the pass rush and coverage scheme, and confusing the heck out of opposing quarterbacks.
The Patriots produced 15 sacks in their first 10 games, and 25 in their final nine. They also allowed 400 yards just once in their final nine games. The Chiefs’ No. 1 offense gained only 290 yards, and the Rams’ No. 2 offense only 260.
The constant twisting and stunting by the Patriots’ front seven led to crucial sacks by Kyle Van Noy and Hightower against the Chiefs and Rams. On Stephon Gilmore’s Super Bowl-clinching interception, Flores called the rarely used double-safety blitz (Devin McCourty and Duron Harmon).
The Patriots were in the bottom third of blitzing teams in 2017 under Matt Patricia, but called the sixth-most blitzes in 2018 under Flores.
“There hasn’t been a better mesh of coaching and playing here than I’ve ever had,” McCourty said after the Super Bowl. “This year has been unbelievable.”
■ Julian Edelman played like an MVP.
He was really the Patriots’ only consistent weapon in the passing game over the final two months, especially once Gordon was suspended in Week 16. Gronkowski had a big game in Miami followed by four quiet games. Chris Hogan and Phillip Dorsett were ghosts for most of the season. James White had a big game in the divisional round, but otherwise had little impact over the final two months. Cordarrelle Patterson was good for only two or three touches per game.
But Edelman was always there. He scored four touchdowns in the final six regular-season games. He had between 69 and 90 yards receiving in five of those games. And he was a superstar in the postseason: 9 for 151 yards against the Chargers, 7 for 96 yards against the Chiefs, and 10 for 141 yards against the Rams.
It’s remarkable that the Patriots won a Super Bowl with one star receiver, a power running game, and a few role players.
■ They figured out how to score first.
Part of the problem in losses to the Jaguars, Lions, and Titans was falling behind early and not being able to get back into the game. The Patriots were outscored, 56-47, in the first quarter from Weeks 1-10. But after the bye, they outscored opponents, 62-31. This included a 14-7 lead over the Chargers (which quickly became 35-7), and a 7-0 lead over the Chiefs (which became 14-0 at halftime).
■ Ramon Humber and Albert McClellan helped stabilize the special teams.
McClellan was added right before the Titans game, and Humber right after, and the two veteran backup linebackers helped solidify some shaky coverage teams.
Before the bye, the Patriots were 29th in kickoff coverage (26.4 yards per return) and 31st in punt coverage (13.1 yards per return). From Week 12 to the Super Bowl, they were 13th in kickoffs (21.7 yards per return) and No. 1 in punts (2.8 yards per return).
The improvement on special teams went far beyond McClellan and Humber, but the two certainly helped. McClellan also blocked two punts in the Miami game.