Five Patriots-focused takeaways from the NFL’s divisional round, which proceeded with out Tom Brady and Bill Belichick for the first time in a decade…
Still caught between remorse and acceptance
As the Titans had been taking it to the Ravens on Saturday evening, it could’ve been completely cheap for Patriots followers watching from New England to really feel as if they had been coming to grips with having watched their staff bow out every week earlier. Tennessee went to Baltimore and validated what they did in Foxborough, and authorized its credentials as greater than a mere 9-7 wild-card entrant. Now having received 9 of 12, and outscoring opponents by 88 factors since a Week 11 bye, a 28-12 divisional-round victory proved that the Titans are legit. There’s no disgrace in dropping to a staff like that, and Saturday evening may’ve provided simply the affirmation Pats Nation wanted to just accept their membership’s untimely playoff exit.
But, at the identical time, it was nearly unattainable for a Patriots fan to observe the developments down in Maryland and never be questioning about all the what-ifs. What if the Pats had simply performed to their potential in opposition to Miami in the regular-season finale? What in the event that they’d thwarted a poor Dolphins offense on the season’s closing drive? What in the event that they’d cashed in on having first and aim from the Titans’ 1? What in the event that they’d buckled down as an alternative of letting Derrick Henry single-handedly go 75 yards in 101 seconds earlier than halftime?
What if the Patriots had seized any of the myriad alternatives to increase their season into the divisional weekend, and will’ve been battling for an opportunity to host the AFC championship as the vulnerabilities of the top-seeded Ravens had been being uncovered?
That’s the place all of it turns into exponentially extra maddening, and harder for New England’s followers to just accept their destiny. For all of the flaws that had surfaced over latest weeks and months, all the pieces was nonetheless there for the Pats in the event that they’d merely dealt with their enterprise. There was a path to a fourth straight Super Bowl. It was there. But they didn’t survive lengthy sufficient to let it develop.
Part of that could be a results of working right into a Titans staff that instructions respect, and has introduced itself as a contender by standing as much as the convention’s heavyweights on consecutive Saturday nights. Tennessee is nice — and at the second they’re enjoying nice. Look past the seeding; they’ve in all probability been higher than the Patriots since Thanksgiving. And they go into Kansas City with an actual probability of leaving Arrowhead Stadium with freshly minted new hats and T-shirts.
By now, Patriots followers are in all probability in a position to acknowledge all of that. But it might be some time but earlier than they’re keen to totally settle for it.
Is Tennessee changing into the greatest place for Brady?
For months the Titans have been talked about amongst the doable locations if Tom Brady had been to depart from the Patriots — however after these previous couple of weeks, may they be the greatest spot for the quarterback?
Ryan Tannehill led the NFL in passer ranking this season after taking on for Marcus Mariota in the center of the season, and the Titans reportedly have curiosity in making a longer-term dedication to him as he enters free company. Two playoff wins ought to pad his resume properly.
However, take a look at what Tannehill has performed in these two wins. He has 15 completions and 160 yards — whole. He adopted up his 8-for-15, 72-yard efficiency at New England with a 7-for-14, 88-yard effort in opposition to Baltimore. He’s thrown for 3 touchdowns, but it surely may’ve stated one thing about Tennessee’s religion in him that in a turning-point kind of second Saturday evening, the Titans took Tannehill off the subject. That got here halfway via the third quarter, after they had third and aim from the three, main 14-6. That’s a state of affairs the place franchise quarterbacks make their cash; as an alternative, Tannehill made means for Mariota, and the Titans snapped it on to Henry.
If Tennessee loses both of the subsequent two video games, it’s going to come back away from this season feeling prefer it’s on the cusp. They have the greatest working again in soccer, and might retain him with a brand new contract or a minimum of the franchise tag. They’re a wise, balanced staff with an honest protection, they usually’re well-coached.
It’s doable that they may take a look at issues and see a right away window the place the solely limitation is perhaps a quarterback able to making the proper play, defending the ball, and rising to the event when the huge second comes. So, enter Brady?
He reportedly has a superb relationship with Vrabel, his former teammate. Beyond Henry the Titans have two good, younger receivers, they usually have high quality at tight finish. Football Outsiders rated theirs as the worst pass-protecting line in the NFL, however the Titans are anticipated to have greater than $50 million in wage cap room this offseason.
Tennessee may also study a lesson from considered one of its divisional foes. Back in 2015, the Jaguars had been in an analogous spot. They gave the impression to be constructing one thing, having reached the AFC championship on the again of a robust working sport, strong teaching, and a superb protection. Based on that, they continued ahead with Blake Bortles, and it wasn’t lengthy earlier than his deficiencies had been uncovered. The staff took a step again, and hasn’t once more reached that peak. Bortles spent this previous season as the Rams’ backup, whereas the Jaguars’ QB place is presently in flux.
If the Titans noticed that, and search to study from it, they may resist the temptation to fall in love with the 31-year-old Tannehill and as an alternative search so as to add a extra steady, confirmed veteran. Even at 43, Brady would appear to fill that want fairly properly whereas pursuing ring No. 7 in Nashville.
The AFC isn’t past hope.
When the obituaries had been being written for the Patriots’ dynasty, they had been printed with the supposition that the steadiness of energy in the AFC had shifted in an enormous means.
Baltimore and Kansas City had been the prime two seeds this season. Both beat New England. Both have younger, thrilling, expert star quarterbacks. Both have established head coaches whose methods are confirmed and entrenched.
They had been on one degree. The Pats had been on the subsequent.
Then the divisional round offered proof to the opposite. The Ravens had been blasted out of the playoffs for the second straight season, leaving them in a prove-it-to-me state for a minimum of one other yr. Meanwhile, the Chiefs’ shortcomings had been obvious en path to Kansas City sliding right into a 24-point gap earlier than exploding again to beat the Texans.
The brilliance of Patrick Mahomes is sort of past reproach at this level, and each Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill are matchup nightmares. But if the opponent hadn’t been the Texans and considered one of the league’s worst passing defenses (29th in yards), KC’s disastrous begin in all three phases won’t have been so simply overcome. Houston wasn’t able to pushing again as soon as the ball began rolling down the hill.
Last January the Patriots had been succesful. And even now, they’re not essentially all that far off from the staff they had been then. In truth, three of the 4 groups nonetheless standing have performed their means into championship weekend with an offense based mostly round run-pass steadiness and a superb protection. In the first six playoff video games this season, solely two of the 12 individuals scored greater than 20 factors in regulation.
The Pats beat the Rams final February on the power of their working sport, protection, and talent to reduce errors. They’re nonetheless constructed to win that means. And that recipe has confirmed to work over the previous two playoff weekends.
Now just isn’t the time to concede the convention to the up-and-comers by urgent the reset button this spring.
A wild weekend for Belichick’s tree
The Patriots have been at the epicenter of the NFL for twenty years now — and this weekend was no completely different, notably these with connections as limbs on Bill Belichick’s teaching tree.
Joe Judge, a Pats assistant as just lately as every week in the past, was launched as the new Giants’ head coach late final week. The Pats will lose him, however except one other job opens surprisingly, they received’t be dropping offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels as a result of he was handed over for the head job in Cleveland.
Tennessee’s win continued to make Vrabel seem like considered one of the league’s subsequent teaching stars, and shutting down the Ravens’ top-ranked offense was additionally a credit score to Dean Pees, former Patriots and now Titans defensive coordinator.
That tandem got here out trying loads higher than the pair of ex-Pats at the helm in Houston. Long-ago New England DC Romeo Crennel operated haplessly as the Chiefs steamrolled his protection for touchdowns on seven straight possessions — and, nonetheless, Crennel didn’t come out of Kansas City trying as dangerous as Bill O’Brien.
His Texans began nicely, clearly, however by the finish of the day the staff’s effort continued its development of enjoying a minimum of one brutal half in each playoff sport. He expedited that course of when his staff tried a pretend punt from deep in its personal territory whereas main 24-7 in the second quarter, and successfully poured lighter fluid on a flame that had simply barely graduated from a spark. In 3:24, Houston’s lead went from 24-Zero to 24-21, and whereas the aggressiveness was in all probability justified by the explosiveness of the Chiefs’ assault, some occasions are higher than others for calculated dangers.
O’Brien miscalculated, completely freely giving the sport’s momentum and additional elevating questions on whether or not the Texans have the proper coach in cost. Houston has a superb quarterback, a star receiver, and a few good items. But what’s much less clear is whether or not it has made progress, or closed the hole on the convention’s true contenders.
Ever yr that passes with out postseason proof his Texans are making constructive features, O’Brien’s destiny appears to teeter much more in territory that’s someplace between being fired and turning into the subsequent Marvin Lewis as the personification of NFL teaching purgatory.
Rookie WR expertise places stress on Harry
If any particular person Patriots participant ought to’ve been feeling stress as we watched the divisional playoffs from afar, it was receiver N’Keal Harry.
His personal rookie marketing campaign was disrupted by damage, and restricted to 14 catches for 126 yards. There had been additionally a variety of cases the place he and Brady appeared to be on very completely different pages, leading to a mix of an interception, a smattering of missed connections, and quite a lot of indignant glares.
It wasn’t precisely the payout the Pats needed to be in search of after they spent the 32nd total choose on Harry final April, and the reliability and duty held by different first-year wideouts throughout the league underscores how necessary will probably be for Harry to raise in time for subsequent season.
Deebo Samuel, taken 5 picks after Harry, is a important piece of the 49ers passing sport. A.J. Brown had a 1,000-yard season for the Titans. Mecole Hardman routinely makes use of his pace to make an impression for the Chiefs as each a receiver and return man. And DK Metcalf totaled 219 yards in the Seahawks’ two playoff tilts.
Brown, Hardman, and Metcalf all joined Samuel as second-round picks — Metcalf chosen with the choose the Pats traded to Seattle for selections that turned Chase Winovich and Hjalte Froholdt. All 4 of them seem like constructing blocks at an necessary place, as does Hollywood Brown, who the Ravens took just a few picks earlier than Harry went to the Pats, and who racked up 126 yards Saturday evening.
There’s loads that the Patriots want to determine in the months to come back, notably when it comes time to construct their staff for 2020. If Harry can a minimum of get to the degree of his friends, and turn out to be a key piece for a deep playoff staff, it could assist that record to turn out to be way more manageable.