Over 18 seasons with Tom Brady as their starting quarterback, the New England Patriots have only failed to advance past the wild-card round on three occasions. Saturday's loss to the Titans marked the first time in a decade that Brady and the Patriots won't advance to the divisional round of the NFL playoffs. By an admittedly impossible standard, this 2019 Patriots season has to be considered a disappointment.
When the Patriots lost to the Ravens at home in the wild-card round during the 2009 playoffs, it was a frustrating end to the season and nothing more. Brady was 32 and months away from signing a four-year, $72 million extension. The end of the Brady-Bill Belichick run in New England seemed years away and was actually even further than most anybody could have expected.
Now, the future is much murkier. Brady is 42. His contract voids after the season, and the Patriots can't franchise tag their star quarterback. His performance declined dramatically during the season. His Boston-area mansion is on the market. Saturday night might very well have been Brady's last game in a Patriots uniform.
The issues that led to New England's defeat extend beyond what happened during the game. Heck, it extends back before 2019. Let's take a chronological look at what led the Patriots to be upset by the Titans, what could have changed, and how it might impact the future:
May: Rob Gronkowski suffers a back injury while lifting weights at Arizona. A 19-year-old Gronkowski was coming off an All-Pac-10 sophomore season with the Wildcats when he injured his back during the offseason. He ruptured a disk in his back and eventually missed the entire 2009 season after undergoing surgery.
The missing season and concerns about his back are likely what led Gronkowski to drop to the second round of the 2010 draft, where the Patriots moved up two spots to select the future Hall of Famer with the 42nd pick. Gronk would have a brilliant career, but the back injury continued to pop up in the years to come and almost certainly helped lead to him retiring at the age of 30.
June: Gronkowski undergoes surgery on his back. After breaking his forearm in January and undergoing multiple surgeries, Gronkowski also goes under the knife in June to repair fractured vertebrae in his back. The star tight end doesn't make his debut until Week 7, and he tears his ACL and MCL on a hit by T.J. Ward in December.
Jan. 18: The Colts are blown out by the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game and report to the NFL that several of the balls used during the game were underinflated. Nearly eight years after the Spygate case struck the NFL, the Patriots find themselves embroiled in a new scandal. After losing 45-7 in a game in which the Pats ran the ball 40 times for 177 yards and three touchdowns, the Colts ask the NFL to initiate an investigation into the footballs that were used during the game at Foxborough.
April 30: The Giants use their first-round pick on Ereck Flowers. Desperately needing a left tackle to replace struggling second-rounder Will Beatty, Giants general manager Jerry Reese goes after a project by using the ninth overall selection on Miami tackle Flowers. He would proceed to disappoint and repeatedly embarrass the organization before being released in 2018. Flowers' failure would prod the Giants to go after a left tackle a few years from now.
May 11: The NFL metes out Deflategate punishment. After the Wells report is released, the NFL strips the Patriots of their 2016 first-round pick and a 2017 fourth-round selection. It also suspends Brady for the first four games of the 2016 season, which is eventually upheld on appeal.
Deflategate has two significant impacts on the Patriots. One is the missing draft picks. The player the Patriots would have drafted with the 29th pick of the first round would have been entering the fourth and final year of his rookie deal this season. While the bottom of the first round that year consisted of disappointing players like Paxton Lynch, Joshua Garnett, Robert Nkemdiche and Vernon Butler, the second round was full of stars. Could the Patriots have used their first-round pick on Jaylon Smith, Xavien Howard or Chris Jones? If they were looking for weapons for Brady, the next three receivers off the board were Hunter Henry, Sterling Shepard and an Ohio State wideout by the name of Michael Thomas. Each of those guys would have been enormously valuable to the 2019 Patriots when healthy.
Brady's suspension, meanwhile, introduced 2014 second-round pick Jimmy Garoppolo to the national stage. Garoppolo only started two of the four games before injuring his shoulder, but he showed enough in those two starts to inspire a significant trade market before eventually making his way to the 49ers in a trade I'll get to in a bit.
Without Deflategate, Garoppolo doesn't get those starts to prove what he can do in a meaningful role. He likely spends the 2016 and 2017 seasons backing up Brady and taking the occasional snap or two in garbage time. There's a reasonable chance that the Patriots would have been able to re-sign Garoppolo at a reasonable price and keep him as their backup and possible heir apparent to Brady. And while I don't think Brady's play declined to the point where the Pats would have benched him during the 2019 season, having Garoppolo in reserve would have given New England a more promising option than as-yet-untested rookie fourth-round pick Jarrett Stidham if it wanted to make a change.
Sept. 9: Nate Solder signs a two-year, $20 million extension. The second left tackle of Brady's career -- after starting things with Matt Light -- Solder signed a team-friendly extension as he entered the fifth-year option of his rookie deal. The contract kept Solder in a Patriots uniform through the 2017 season, but it crucially prevented the Patriots from franchising their left tackle before free agency in 2018.
March 15: The Patriots trade Chandler Jones to the Cardinals for guard Jonathan Cooper and the 61st overall pick. With their star pass-rusher entering the fifth-year option of his rookie deal, the Patriots decide to get something for him before he hit free agency. Jones goes to the desert for a late second-round pick and Cooper, a reclamation project who had disappointed after being drafted with the seventh overall pick.
Cooper would be cut without ever playing a game for the Patriots. They eventually got a guard out of this deal, but it was via a second trade; Belichick sent the pick he got from the Cardinals to the Saints, who traded up and grabbed Vonn Bell. The Patriots turned the third- and fourth-round picks they got from New Orleans into Joe Thuney and Malcolm Mitchell.
Thuney has turned out to be a solid starting guard, but this didn't work out well for New England. Belichick is usually a master of trading players at the right time and has an established habit of letting star edge rushers leave, but Jones has enjoyed the best post-Patriots career of any star Belichick has traded. Jones has racked up 60 sacks over his four years in Arizona, including 19 in 2019. Aaron Donald is the only other player in the NFL within 10 sacks of Jones' total over that time span.
The Patriots did have an excellent defense without a No. 1 pass-rusher on paper in 2019, and they were able to use the money they saved by trading Jones elsewhere, but he probably couldn't have hurt in a wild-card game in which the Patriots sacked Ryan Tannehill once across 16 dropbacks.
Nov. 13: Earl Thomas hits Rob Gronkowski. When superheroes collide, the impact usually leaves a crater. It was no different for two future Hall of Famers when Thomas hit a vulnerable Gronkowski with a clean shot to the chest in Week 10. The Seahawks eventually pulled out a 31-24 road victory over the Pats, but Gronk's injury became the bigger story.
Initially, he missed one game with a perforated lung. When he came back for a game with the Jets, he left with a back injury and never returned. Gronkowski suffered another disk injury and missed the remainder of the 2016 season, raising more concerns about his long-term NFL future.
April 27-29: Belichick has his worst draft with the Patriots. While the Pats were already down their first-round pick after trading for Brandin Cooks, it's difficult to find a draft in which Belichick found less than what the Pats got in 2017. Picking last after winning the Super Bowl, Belichick traded the 64th pick to the Panthers for the 72nd pick and defensive end Kony Ealy, who was cut during training camp. The Saints and Panthers used the picks they got from the Pats on Ryan Ramczyk and Taylor Moton, two of the top young right tackles in football.
Belichick traded down again with the Titans, who drafted Taywan Taylor, and then used Tennessee's selection on defensive end Derek Rivers, who has played 78 defensive snaps over three seasons with the Pats. Two picks later, Belichick traded up with the Lions to draft tackle Antonio Garcia, who missed all of his rookie season with blood clots in his lungs before being cut without ever playing in the NFL. Detroit used the third-round pick the Pats traded away on a receiver who would have helped this season, Kenny Golladay.
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The Patriots used a fourth-round pick on reserve end Deatrich Wise Jr., who became the only notable contributor to the team from this draft. With Cooks no longer on the roster and the third-rounders barely playing, there was a huge hole in the 2019 roster where the 2017 draft should be hitting its stride.
Sept. 7: Malcolm Mitchell goes on injured reserve. One of the many Georgia players Belichick has drafted in recent years, the fourth-round pick impressed during his rookie season, catching 32 passes for 401 yards and four touchdowns. He started both the AFC Championship Game and the Super Bowl, catching six passes for 70 yards in the comeback victory over the Falcons, and he appeared to be a useful possession receiver and route runner very early in his career.
The Super Bowl, sadly, was the last game Mitchell would ever play. Mitchell tore his ACL in college and struggled with knee issues as a rookie before being placed on injured reserve just before the Pats' Week 1 loss to the Chiefs. Mitchell missed all of 2017, was cut by the Patriots in August 2018, and then underwent another knee surgery before subsequently retiring in March 2019. Mitchell would have likely figured into the 2019 offense if he was still on the roster.
Oct. 31: The Patriots trade Garoppolo to the 49ers for a second-round pick. With Garoppolo reportedly turning down contract extensions and Brady in the middle of what would be an MVP campaign, the Patriots are left with little choice but to move on from their would-be quarterback of the future. Reportedly under a directive from Robert Kraft, a furious Belichick sends Garoppolo to the 49ers for a second-round pick.
Perhaps in part to obfuscate the return from the trade, Belichick sliced and diced the 49ers pick into a dizzying array of swaps. He traded down with the Bears on two different occasions alone as part of the deal and is still owed their fourth-round pick in the 2020 draft. The selections Belichick acquired played a key role in drafting Duke Dawson, Joejuan Williams, Damien Harris, Christian Sam and Byron Cowart.
The highest-drafted players were Dawson and Williams, a pair of second-round defensive backs. Dawson missed all of his rookie season with an injury before being traded to the Broncos for a sixth-round pick without playing for the Pats, while Williams served as a reserve cornerback this season. Harris, a third-round pick at running back, spent the season buried on the depth chart and only played five snaps.
Of course, Garoppolo was great in 2017 and injured for most of 2018 before impressing this season for the top-seeded Niners. Realistically, the Patriots waited too long in making this move, which was obvious at the time. The Patriots should have been able to fetch a first-round pick for Garoppolo during spring 2017, which would have allowed them to possibly add a much more valuable contributor in that year's draft than the guys who ended up coming out of the Garoppolo deal.
Feb. 6: Josh McDaniels reneges on his agreement to become Colts coach. Two days after the Patriots lost Super Bowl LII to the Eagles, they got an unlikely piece of good news when McDaniels decided to return to the team. The former Broncos coach and current Pats offensive coordinator appeared to be on his way to Indianapolis, with the Colts waiting for New England's playoff run to end before officially announcing McDaniels as their next coach. Instead, even though McDaniels had already recruited coaches to his new staff in Indianapolis, the 41-year-old was given a raise to return to New England.
Keeping McDaniels looked like a coup for the Patriots, especially given that they were losing defensive coordinator Matt Patricia to the Lions during the same offseason. It remains to be seen whether it actually turns out that way. McDaniels didn't have an answer on offense once the Patriots started to struggle in 2019, raising concerns that the guy whose offenses struggled without Brady in Denver and in St. Louis might not be quite as impressive without an in-his-prime Hall of Fame quarterback at the helm. McDaniels might also choose to leave the organization this offseason, leaving the Patriots in need of a new voice on offense.
March 14: The Giants sign Solder to a four-year, $62 million deal. With the Pats unable to franchise Solder under the terms of his old extension, they're stuck letting their star left tackle hit the market. A three-team bidding war sprouts up between Belichick, Houston's Bill O'Brien and new Giants general manager Dave Gettleman. In the end, the hog molly aficionado got his prize, handing Solder the largest contract ever awarded to an offensive lineman.
The Solder deal has turned out to be a disaster for the Giants. Stats LLC suggests that he allowed 12.5 sacks this season, more than what he allowed over 35 games in his last three seasons with the Patriots. He hasn't gotten much help from quarterbacks who have been immobile (Eli Manning) and mostly unaware of the pass rush (Daniel Jones), but he was signed to be a franchise left tackle and has frequently been disappointing.
Would Solder have declined as dramatically if he had stayed with the Patriots? It's impossible to say, but given the presence of Brady and the tutelage of legendary offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia, I'm inclined to think not. Keeping Solder would have forced the Patriots to make other cutbacks, though, and while they might have drafted a different player, they would still probably been forced to make the following move:
April 3: The Patriots trade Cooks to the Rams. Just one year after acquiring Cooks from the Saints, Belichick decides to move on from his No. 1 receiver by sending him and a fourth-round pick to Los Angeles for first- and sixth-round picks. The Patriots use the first-round pick they get from the Rams on Isaiah Wynn, who is drafted to take over as the team's left tackle of the future after losing Solder in free agency.
Obviously, a healthy Cooks would have been a massive upgrade on the receivers the Patriots ran out next to Julian Edelman this season. If the Pats kept Cooks, they likely don't use a first-round pick on N'Keal Harry in 2019, instead choosing to address the tackle position instead. They would have needed to give Cooks an extension, which would have necessitated some creative accounting from a team that typically has a very clean cap.
It's impossible to say whether Cooks would have been a difference-maker for the Pats in 2019. The Patriots traded him after he suffered a concussion during the Super Bowl loss to the Eagles, and while I doubt that Belichick projected Cooks to continue dealing with brain injuries, the Rams standout suffered two concussions in 2019 and failed to top 60 receiving yards in a game after Week 4. I feel confident in saying that Belichick would have preferred having Cooks to someone like Harry or Mohamed Sanu in the lineup for the Titans game.
April 26: The Pats use a first-round pick on Sony Michel. As a team that has rarely invested significant resources in running backs, it was a shock to see the Patriots use a first-round pick on a player who was likely to serve as their power back, a role the Pats had filled in years past with guys like LeGarrette Blount and BenJarvus Green-Ellis. It was really only the third time Belichick had made a major investment in that spot after trading for Corey Dillon and using a first-round pick on Laurence Maroney.
Dillon had one great year before turning into a replacement-level back, and Maroney flashed promise in his first two years as a rotation back before disappointing afterward. Michel might be on the same path. After a competent rookie season, Michel took over and excelled as the Pats' primary back during the 2018 postseason, racking up 336 rushing yards and six touchdowns over their three-game run to the title. He seemed primed for bigger things in 2019.
Without Gronkowski or a pair of starting linemen from the 2018 team -- Trent Brown and David Andrews -- Michel collapsed. He underwent a knee scope in June and didn't show any burst all season, averaging just 3.7 yards per carry. He was a disaster as a receiver, dropping three passes on just 20 targets. The nadir came in the Titans game, but more on that later.
It seemed like drafting Michel was some sort of anticipatory genius, that Belichick might be using the pick to transition to more of a power offense or that Michel was a better prospect than anybody else could have imagined. So far, though, Michel looks like a competent interior runner who does little more than get what is blocked.
The players who were drafted shortly after Michel might have changed the franchise. The next player taken after Michel was Lamar Jackson, who will likely win league MVP in his second year as a pro. The next runner selected was 35th overall pick Nick Chubb, who has proved to be a far more dynamic back so far as a pro than his Georgia teammate. Michel might round into form in 2020 if his knee stays healthy, but this hasn't been a great selection for the Pats.
Oct. 19: Gronkowski pops up on the injury report with a back issue. While the star tight end was already dealing with an ankle ailment, this is the first time Gronkowski is listed on the injury report in 2018 with a back problem. While he had been playing through the ankle injury, he subsequently misses the next four games. When he comes back, an ailing Gronk averages 39 receiving yards per game over the remainder of the regular season.
Oct. 30: The trade deadline passes without a deal for Derrick Henry. While our Chris Mortensen reported that the Titans were shopping their second-round pick at the 2018 trade deadline, general manager Jon Robinson wasn't able to find a deal that he liked for the former Alabama star. The Titans instead decided to keep Henry, even though he was serving as the backup to former Patriots back Dion Lewis.
At that time, Henry looked like little more than the back end of a rotation as his team's power back. He had posted competent numbers behind DeMarco Murray in 2016 and 2017, but when put in the starting role to begin 2018, he had disappointed. The Titans had moved him back into the change-of-pace role behind Lewis, and at the time they were shopping Henry, he was averaging 3.3 yards per carry on a team in the middle of a three-game losing streak.
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Henry continued to serve as the change-of-pace back until a fateful Thursday night game against the Jaguars in December. With Lewis carrying the ball 10 times for just 13 yards, Henry scored a touchdown on the opening drive and then took a second-quarter carry from his own 1-yard line 99 yards to the house. He finished with 238 yards and was restored to the starting lineup the following week, where he has resided ever since.
From that Jaguars game in Week 14 of 2018 through the end of the 2019 regular season, Henry has racked up 2,125 rushing yards, 329 more than any other back in football. His 23 rushing touchdowns are six more than any other player. He then dominated the Patriots in the wild-card round, racking up 208 yards and a touchdown on 35 touches from scrimmage. Who knows if the Titans have a running back as devastating as Henry if they end up making this trade?
Feb. 3: The Patriots win the Super Bowl. A 13-3 victory over the Rams hands Belichick and Brady their sixth Super Bowl victory. Immediately after the game, there's speculation that Gronkowski will retire.
March 11: Adam Humphries shuns the Patriots to sign a four-year, $36 million deal with the Titans. I wasn't thrilled about this move for the Titans when it happened, in part because I felt that teams like the Patriots had exhibited an ability to create or elevate slot receivers as opposed to signing them away from other teams in free agency. As it turned out, the Patriots were actually interested in signing Humphries from the Bucs and offered Humphries more money, but by the time they expressed their interest, he had already agreed to terms with the Titans.
Humphries also admitted he turned down the Patriots out of a fear that Brady wouldn't be their quarterback much longer, which seems even more interesting now. Humphries' first year with the Titans was underwhelming, with the 26-year-old catching 37 passes for 374 yards and two receiving scores in 12 games before going down with a high ankle sprain, which caused him to miss the last month of the season and the win over the Pats.
It's impossible to predict whether he would have suffered the same injuries with New England. It seems curious that the Pats would target Humphries given the presence of Edelman in the slot, but had they succeeded, they would have likely gone with more spread looks and tried to use both Edelman and Humphries in the slot on opposite sides of the formation. Humphries also would have been useful leverage if Edelman got injured.
March 15: The Dolphins trade Tannehill to the Titans. In a sign of how thin the market was for their starting quarterback, the Dolphins paid $5 million of the $7 million Tannehill was due after restructuring his contract and sent a sixth-round pick to the Titans to get fourth- and seventh-round selections back. No team in the league was willing to send a fourth-round pick to the Dolphins for the privilege of getting a guy who had been a low-end starting quarterback on what amounted to a one-year, $2 million pact.
Of course, that move has turned out to be the best trade of the offseason for the Titans. Tannehill played Pro Bowl football for 10 weeks and led Tennessee to the playoffs. And while he did little against the Patriots on Sunday, the success of the running game came in part because the Patriots were afraid of what Tannehill was capable of doing off play-action.
March 24: Gronkowski retires. The tight end leaves the game at age 30 after a season in which he looked diminished as a downfield receiver, although his work in the playoffs suggests there was still plenty left in the tank for the future Hall of Famer as both a receiver and a blocker. Speculation immediately begins that Gronkowski will return later in the season, but despite teasing a big announcement multiple times on social media, he sits out the entire season. The Patriots finish the season with 419 yards on throws to tight ends, the third fewest in the league.
April 25: The Patriots use their first-round pick on N'Keal Harry. After going 11 drafts without using a first-round pick on a skill-position player, the Patriots use their second first-round pick in two years on one by drafting Harry with the 32nd and final selection on the opening round. The 6-foot-2 Arizona State product is seen as a physical mismatch for smaller cornerbacks and a smart complement to Edelman on the interior.
Harry flashed some during training camp, but an ankle injury led the Patriots to place him on injured reserve. After returning in midseason, he made the occasional big play, with the winning touchdown against the Cowboys as an example, but it was clear that the Patriots only saw him as a situational player. Harry only played two offensive snaps in the loss to the Chiefs and failed to top 30 yards in any game during his rookie campaign.
It's too early to make any sort of long-term judgment about Harry, but it's fair to say that other wide receivers made more of a short-term impact during their rookie campaigns. One of those wideouts was Titans stud A.J. Brown, who was my pick for Rookie of the Year after he amassed 1,051 receiving yards and nine touchdowns. Brown was taken 19 picks behind Harry, and other wideouts such as Deebo Samuel, DK Metcalf and Terry McLaurin were also difference-makers as rookies and still on the board at No. 32. While Brown had a quiet wild-card game with the Titans prioritizing running the football, it's tempting to imagine how the Pats season could have gone with one of those standouts in the lineup instead of Harry.
The only other player from the draft to take snaps on offense for the Pats was Harris. Despite the injuries to the offensive line, third-round pick Yodny Cajuste and fourth-rounder Hjalte Froholdt never made it onto the active roster, with both linemen hitting injured reserve.
August: Center David Andrews is hospitalized. One of the most underrated and underpaid veterans on the roster, Andrews is placed on injured reserve and misses the entire 2019 season. He's replaced by utility lineman Ted Karras, although an injury to Karras forces the Pats to rely on third-stringer James Ferentz for a spot start against the Chiefs.
Sept. 9-20: Antonio Brown is signed and then released by the Patriots. Amid a bizarre year for Brown that would require a whole other article, the Patriots pounced after the Raiders released the former Steelers star and signed Brown to a one-year, $15 million deal. Brown made his debut for the Patriots in Week 2 and caught four passes for 56 yards and a touchdown.
Five days later, after allegations surfaced that Brown had been both accused of sexual assault and sending threatening text messages to a second woman, the Patriots released Brown. He is currently involved with a grievance in an attempt to get the money the Patriots guaranteed when they signed him; it appears that the Pats owe $10.5 million in dead money to Brown over their 2019 and 2020 caps as a result of their ill-fated deal.
Brown's off-field behavior has been both abhorrent and wildly erratic. If he had somehow found a way to behave during his time on the Patriots, it's hard to imagine a more perfect fit for what the Pats ended up needing on offense than the seven-time Pro Bowler. Even when Brady had protection during the second half of the season, he rarely had a receiver who was capable of creating separation and getting open beyond Edelman. Brown would have been that player. Instead, his brief stint with the team turned out to be an embarrassment.
Sept. 23: James Develin and Isaiah Wynn go down injured against the Dolphins. While the Patriots' 43-0 win over the Dolphins in Week 2 was a cakewalk, it cost them two critical offensive pieces. Develin, the team's starting fullback, suffered a neck injury that cost him the remainder of the season. Wynn, who was making his second career start after missing all of 2018 with a torn Achilles, suffered a toe injury and missed the next 10 weeks before returning from IR.
The Pats didn't do well replacing either contributor. New England eventually settled on linebacker Elandon Roberts as their new fullback, although it took them until December before Roberts began to see more than a handful of snaps. Wynn was replaced by street free agent Marshall Newhouse, who allowed 5.5 sacks in nine starts, per Stats LLC.
Oct. 2: Stephen Gostkowski hits injured reserve. The longtime Patriots kicker rejoined the team from free agency in April on a two-year deal, but Gostkowski wasn't up to his usual standards. The 35-year-old missed four of his first 15 extra point tries and one of his eight field goal attempts before going on to injured reserve with a hip injury. The Pats cycled through three other kickers, Kai Forbath, Nick Folk and Mike Nugent, but they went a combined 20-of-26 on field goal tries, and Belichick showed little faith in any of his replacements.
Oct. 22: The Patriots trade for Mohamed Sanu. In need of receiving help, the Patriots sent a second-round pick to the Falcons for Sanu, whom they had targeted in free agency and via trade during the 2019 draft. Sanu gave the Patriots a good route runner and a sure pair of hands due just $9.5 million over the rest of 2019 and 2020. I wasn't thrilled about the deal for the Patriots given the compensation, but it was a veteran addition at a position of need.
Sanu's arrival turned out to be a major disappointment. While he had 10 catches for 81 yards and a touchdown in New England's 37-20 loss to the Ravens, he suffered an ankle injury after the bye and never seemed to recover. Over his final eight games, he caught 15 passes on 33 targets for 114 yards, including a solitary catch for 11 yards on five targets against Tennessee. Even if you want to blame the ankle, Sanu didn't end up making much of a difference for the Pats.
Oct. 31: The Patriots cut Josh Gordon off injured reserve. With Harry about to return from injured reserve and Gordon failing to make much of an impact before suffering a minor knee injury, the Patriots decided to cut ties with the mercurial former Browns star. Gordon's potential to anyone who saw him excel at college or during the 2013 season is obvious, but he stepped away from the organization in 2018 and was suspended indefinitely for another violation of the league's substance abuse policy after joining the Seahawks. A healthy, productive Gordon could have been a difference-maker for the Patriots, but it's unclear whether Gordon will ever be that player.
Dec. 8: Julian Edelman suffers a knee injury in a 23-16 loss to the Chiefs. While Edelman was already dealing with a shoulder injury before the Chiefs game, a knee injury suffered during the loss seemed to really hobble Brady's last remaining effective receiver. Edelman finished that game with 95 receiving yards and a touchdown, but he wasn't the same guy afterward. Over his final four games of the season, he totaled just 137 receiving yards on 13 catches. When you consider that two of those games came against the lowly Bengals and Dolphins, it seems likely that he was far less than 100%. Edelman's toughness should be respected, but the Pats just didn't have any healthy receivers left once he got hurt.
Dec. 29: The defense blows the lead against the Dolphins. The Patriots shouldn't blow a fourth-quarter lead in Week 17 with a first-round bye on the line against an organization that was trying to lose. It was a mark of just how far they had fallen during the season that the same Patriots team that won 41-0 in Miami in Week 2 was holding on for dear life in the fourth quarter at home.
They didn't pull it off. Ryan Fitzpatrick converted a pair of third downs, but this wasn't even a particularly difficult or heroic drive. The Dolphins had no trouble against the league's No. 1 defense by virtually every metric before Fitzpatrick hit Mike Gesicki for the game-winning touchdown. New England was a stop away from spending the wild-card round on the couch before what would have been a home game against the Texans. Instead, it was done after the opening day of the postseason.
Jan. 4: Michel is stuffed on a third-and-goal carry from the 1-yard line. If any play encapsulates what went wrong for the Patriots in the months (or years) leading up to this game and how it changed their offense, it's Michel getting stood up for a loss on third-and-goal.
The Patriots run outside zone, which they've gone to on the goal line since Michel was in elementary school. It fails because the blocking fails. Karras, in the lineup at center for Andrews, gets beat to the playside by rookie first-round pick Jeffery Simmons, who immediately threatens Michel in the backfield and forces him to cut outside. There, Newhouse has been brought into the game as an extra offensive lineman, but he gets stood up on the edge by Harold Landry, preventing Michel from kicking the play to the edge. Roberts, the makeshift fullback, flies toward the edge and dives toward Kevin Byard, but falls to the ground without making contact.
Forced into no man's land without a place to cut, Michel's only hope is to miraculously make unblocked linebacker Rashaan Evans miss and twist forward for a score, but the Titans' 2018 first-rounder -- whom the Patriots denied having any interest in during the draft -- makes the tackle. A group of fill-ins, backups and disappointing players combined to come up short on the biggest offensive snap of the game for the Patriots. And while they didn't realize it at the time, it cost the Patriots the game.
As The Boston Globe's Nora Princiotti noted, this was the first time in the Brady-Belichick era that the Patriots failed to score a touchdown on a series in which they had first-and-goal from the 1-yard line in the playoffs. The Pats kicked a field goal on fourth down to go up 13-7 with 2:18 to go in the first half and never came close to scoring again. The Titans scored a touchdown to take the lead before halftime, and New England didn't advance the ball past the Tennessee 47-yard line at any point afterward. It scored one touchdown on three red zone trips, while the Titans scored touchdowns on both of their red zone possessions. That (and a pick-six with 15 seconds left to go by former Pats corner Logan Ryan) was the difference in this game.
In the past, one goal-line stand on third down wouldn't have been enough to sink the Patriots. They would have kept coming. Belichick would have had enough faith in his offense to convert on fourth-and-goal. A healthy Edelman would have caught that second-and-4 pass to push the ball to midfield with 3:26 to go. The Patriots would have gone to Gronkowski, the perpetual mismatch, when they needed to move the ball in the fourth quarter. Belichick would come up with some gimmick or loophole to trick the defense, the referees or both.
On Saturday, though, we finally saw that the solution we all expected the Patriots to find after months of questions about the offense never came. And now, as they confront the possibility of a future without their Hall of Fame quarterback, those questions seem even more vexing. The Patriots are rightfully regarded as the smartest organization in the league, and they get as many things right as anybody in football, but a combination of offensive personnel missteps, injuries and Father Time managed to take them down in the wild-card round.