FOR MOST of the Patriots’ long run among the NFL elite, the most frustrating aspect of their playoff exits has been that those losses have come when New England was favored, or could’ve made the case it was the better club.
That wasn’t the situation Sunday in Denver, where the Broncos showed why they went 13-3 and were the AFC’s top seed.
The Patriots and their fans were left wondering whether things would’ve been different had the Pats played the game — and this season — at full strength and what the team should do to ensure next season ends on a happier note.
They were far from full strength Sunday, by which time Wes Welker had been a Broncos employee for 10 months and Aaron Hernandez was about to begin his eighth month in jail, while Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo and Rob Gronkowski had all been lost for the season due to injury. And then early in the title game, top cornerback Aqib Talib collided with Welker in the middle of the field and his day ended with an ailing knee.
Last spring, it looked as though the Pats’ most significant loss might be Welker, who caught more passes than any Patriot ever during his six-year stay in Foxborough but traded in Tom Brady for Peyton Manning. As the year progressed, however, and Julian Edelman emerged as Brady’s security blanket, Welker’s absence became increasingly less obvious, even if Danny Amendola (perhaps because of injury himself) didn’t pan out as expected.
It just might be that the loss that hurt the Patriots the most might’ve been the one that had the least to do with football. Hernandez was initially supposed to be the guy who took over Welker’s go-to role in the passing game. With his blend of size, speed, strength and shiftiness, his playmaking ability was a big factor in affording the defense the margin for error it was missing this year. He made Gronkowski all the more dangerous and less keyed upon.
The Patriots built their team expecting to have all of that, too, but a month before training camp it was taken away without being replaced. And it cost them.
There’s no way to know, of course, whether the Patriots would’ve beaten the Broncos with Hernandez, though it’s clear that an important part of the retooling now under way must include the addition of at least one more dangerous playmaker.
Despite scoring more points than everyone but the Broncos and Bears, the Pats were missing that playmaker Sunday, as they were for most of the season, with the most obvious change from previous years being the tight ends.
During the seven games they had Gronkowski, the Patriots averaged 32 points and 417 yards, compared with 25 points and 361 yards without him, and his absence showed the difference he makes in how New England attacks and in the way it is defended.
During the season, the Patriots endured lengthy offensive droughts during games. That was the problem again Sunday, as the offense didn’t reach the end zone until the fourth quarter.
Wilfork was the first big name to go down during the season, and the Patriots certainly felt the impact. They lost two of their first three full games without him, and the defense’s numbers suffered a significant drop. He played in only four games, so consider the sample size, but when their stout defensive tackle was in the lineup the club allowed 14.5 points and 105 rushing yards per game; without him, they yielded averages of 23.4 points and 136 yards on the ground.
Mayo’s loss was less noticeable in looking at the numbers, as after his Week 6 injury the team actually yielded a few yards less without him (341) than it did with him (348) each week. And especially in the playoffs the emergences of Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins meant linebacker was actually the biggest strength of the Pats’ defense in the season’s biggest game.
Generally, too, the defense was decent for much of the season. It allowed more than 30 points three times in a four-game stretch just after Mayo went down, but those were the only times all year, and it finished as the league’s 10th-best in terms of points allowed. Bending but rarely breaking, it even kept the greatest offense in NFL history to 12 points less than its season average on Sunday, with Talib’s loss certainly hampering their ability to get off the field, though seemingly not costing them too many points.
Being forced to face a multi-threat attack like Denver’s without his best cover man obviously angered Belichick, to the point that unprompted he said Monday that “it was a deliberate play by the receiver to take out Aqib,” with Welker making “no attempt to get open,” and that making for “one of the worst plays I’ve seen.”
Replacing the team’s loss in an offensive playmaker isn’t the Pats’ only task, as they need to re-sign Talib, plus add depth to the defensive and offensive lines, but it should be the top priority because in a lot of ways it’s what sent them home Sunday.
Dave D’Onofrio covers the Patriots for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is email@example.com.