FOXBOROUGH — Is this how it ends?
We have visited this dark doorstep before . . . and been wrong before. A decade ago, the Patriots lost back-to-back home playoff games in successive seasons and it looked like the dynasty was over. Three Super Bowl championships later, the Patriots were still kicking butts and taking names. They started 8-0 in 2019, and we were talking about running the table and watching Tom Brady and friends win an NFL-record seventh Super Bowl next month in Florida.
But it all fell apart over the last two months, and Saturday night at Gillette, freight train Derrick Henry and the sixth-seeded Tennessee Titans ended the Patriots season with a hard-earned, 20-13, wild-card playoff victory. There was nothing fluky about it. The better team won.
It gets worse, folks. There’s a distinct possibility that Brady — our football answer to Bill Russell, Ted Williams, and Bobby Orr — is all done as a Patriot. Boston’s 42-year-old football god is an unrestricted free agent come March and he could play elsewhere, or retire, unless Bob Kraft finds a way to secure his future services at a whopping price. The last pass of the game — possibly the last pass ever thrown by Brady as a Patriot — resulted in a pick-6.
Ouch. The worst moment delivered by the best there ever was.
So there you go. Quite possibly, we are finally going to find out what Belichick can do without Brady. This is otherwise known as The End Of A Dynasty In Context.
“Who knows what the future holds?” said Brady. “I don’t know what the future looks like and I’m not going to predict.”
When asked directly if he was going to retire he said, “pretty unlikely, hopefully unlikely.”
It truly feels like the Patriots are in need of a serious reboot. They have possibly no quarterback, a halting offense, the oldest defense in football, and will probably lose offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels to another NFL team. GM Nick Caserio could also bolt.
The final half of the 2019 season, the Patriots were exposed as NFL Fool’s Gold, artificially enlarged by the soft schedule they played the first three months. They went 9-1 against Tomato Cans (.500 or worse), but could not beat good teams. Against teams still alive in the AFC, they were 0-4. That’s all that needs to be said.
Wild Card Weekend has never been their friend. The last 18 seasons, the Patriots made things easy on themselves by taking care of business during the regular season, assuring they would not have to compete in the first round of the tournament. In the nine times they made it to the Super Bowl, they never played on wild-card weekend. And now they go down as a 12-4 team that lost four of the last six games they played.
In the end, the vaunted Boogeymen defense was wildly overrated. It turned out to be a good unit, not great. Tennessee bulldozer Henry was not seeing ghosts Saturday at Gillette.
The start of the Patriots’ final game was delayed 10 minutes (to 8:25 p.m.) while the Bills and Texans went into overtime in the early AFC wild-card game in Houston. The Texans won, 22-19.
It was 44 degrees, foggy, and humid at kickoff. Not bad for early January in New England.
Former Patriot Mike Vrabel is coach of the Titans and makes no bones about taunting his ex-bosses. Back in 2009, Vrabel publicly called out Patriots ownership before they traded him to Kansas City, and he has since made extra effort to poke the bear. He did pushups on the sideline late Saturday afternoon, then had his team’s pregame huddle on the Patriot logo at midfield before kickoff.
The home crowd was relatively quiet at the start. It was as if fans were still worried about their team in the wake of last Sunday’s stunning loss to the moribund Miami Dolphins. This was the Patriots’ first wild-card playoff game since the locals were smoked here by the Ravens (33-14) in January 2010.
Tennessee won the toss and deferred. It looked like the Patriots might go three-and-out, but things turned when Brady completed a 21-yard pass to Ben Watson. The drive stalled at the 18, and New England settled for a 36-yard field goal and a 3-0 lead.
It didn’t last long. The Titans took the ball and gashed the vaunted Patriot defense with a 12-play, 75-yard drive, culminating with a 12-yard touchdown pass to Harvard’s Anthony Firkser, which gave the visitors a 7-3 lead with 5:39 left in the first. Wide load Henry (6 feet 3 inches, 247 pounds) ran for 49 yards on seven carries on the drive.
The Patriots answered with their own 75-yard touchdown drive, and took a 10-7 lead early in the second on a 5-yard touchdown run by Julian Edelman. By this juncture, the crowd was awakened.
Late in the first half, the Patriots stormed into the red zone and had first-and-goal from the 1-yard line. After three plays of nothing, Nick Folk was forced to kick a chip-shot field goal. The Pats led, 13-7, but the stalled drive was a wasted opportunity. Brady used two timeouts. Brutal. It was the first time in Belichick-Brady history that they failed to score a touchdown in a playoff game from a first-and-goal situation.
The Titans resumed feeding Henry before halftime. The big back from Alabama steamrolled for every yard, including a 22-yard catch, on a 75-yard drive, and ran it in from the 1 with 35 seconds left in the half to give the Titans a 14-13 lead at intermission. Henry had 128 yards on 15 touches at halftime.
Neither team scored in the third quarter.
The big play in the fourth was a crucial 11-yard catch by Firkser (always the Harvard guy), allowing Vrabel and his guys to eat clock.
In the end, the Patriots just did not have enough offense.
Brady and Co. got the ball back one last time on their 1-yard line with 15 seconds left.
Then came the pick-6.
The end of the 2019 Patriots. And quite possibly the end of Tom Brady as a Patriot.
Dan Shaughnessy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org