Sunday, January 5, 2020

Patriots Fall To Titans 20-13, Exit Playoffs

The Patriots lost for the second straight week at home with playoff implications on the line. The last time that happened under Bill Belichick was never. Last night the Tennessee Titans handed them a 20-13 loss, and it will be the Titans advancing to the Divisional Round of the playoffs. The loss knocked the Patriots out of the playoffs and leaves them with a lot of soul-searching this off-season.

The maddening thing about Pats playoff losses is that they are always close. When you get blown out, you can just write it off as "not your day." But when you lose by one score or less, every mistake, every unlucky bounce, every single play can be micro-analyzed for its impact on the point differential.

So of course, that's what I'm going to do. The Pats gave up a ton of rushing yards, the punting game was unimpressive, and the offense sputtered. But the loss came down to killer mistakes on a few plays, and I'll list the ones I thought were the most impactful here.

Killer Mistake #1: Josh McDaniels play-calling on short yardage

On first-and-goal from the Titans 1-yard-line, McDaniels called for a heavy formation with everyone in tight and called three straight runs without any misdirection. It's football 101 that you can't do that unless you have a dominant offensive line or the other team is weak on the D-line. A touchdown there would have put the Pats up by 10, and maybe Tennessee would have leaned more heavily on QB Ryan Tannehill -- which would have played right into the Pats hands. The field goal they got didn't do enough to change the Titans game plan.

This wasn't McDaniels' only bad call though. Nearly every time they brought in Elandon Roberts to block, it was a run that followed Roberts. By the third quarter, the Titans were flooding those gaps with safeties, which left them singled-up on receivers all over the field. Where was the play-action on those plays? How about sending Roberts left and running right?

McDaniels wasn't bad all day long. His screen-pass calls were well-timed and mostly successful. But on short yardage, here is how it went:

  • Runs from running formation: 7 plays for minus-1 yards (0 first downs)
  • Run from pass formation: 1 play for 14 yards (1 first down)
  • Passes: 3-of-5 for 32 yards (3 first downs)

That "minus-1 yards" is not a misprint. Maybe McDaniels would like to have this game back.

Killer Mistake #2: Shaq Mason illegally downfield

Patriots first possession of the second half, they drove from their own 13 to the 37 yard-line. On third-and-10, Brady bought time in the pocket and found an uncovered Ben Watson for a 38-yard gain to the Titans 25. The Pats were moving the ball and in business, ready to score and take the lead.

Wait... flag on the play. Inexplicably, Shaq Mason wandered downfield instead of staying back to protect Brady. That five-yard penalty that cost the Patriots 43 yards and a first down. Next play was a screen that lost 4 yards and the Patriots punted.

I heard some analysis saying that Mason might have thought Brady was running or that he was trying to block his guy too aggressively. Bullshit. He had absolutely no business going downfield on a pass play unless he knew the quarterback was running. It's the second thing they teach you as an offensive lineman -- right after they show you how to get away with holding :D

This was a huge brain-cramp by Mason. By and large he had an excellent year. But in this critical moment, he cost the team points in a game they eventually were going to lose by a single point (the garbage-time pick-six notwithstanding).

Killer Mistake #3: Not scoring after the INT

On the first play of the fourth quarter, Tannehill was pressured and threw the most Ryan Tannehill of interceptions -- a big lob ball that was easily picked by safety Duron Harmon at the Patriots 41 yard-line. Still in a one-point game, all the Pats needed was about 30 yards to attempt a field goal for the lead.

Two plays later, the Patriots even got bailed out with a defensive holding, giving them a free five yards and a first down instead leaving them with third-and-10. And things looked promising when they gained four and then three yards on the next two plays.

But a short pass to Dorsett fell incomplete, leaving them to contemplate whether to punt on fourth down. Ultimately they tried the punt to pin the Titans deep, but Jake Bailey's kick sailed directly into the end zone for a touchback (net of 26 yards).

Not sure if I disagree with the punt. But I think the better scenario was to spread the field and run the ball on third down and gain a few yards, to give yourself either a first down or a chance on fourth down.

And not to pile on McDaniels, but that situation called for emptying the playbook. Whatever play you had in your back pocket, it was time to call it. The misdirection screen, a Jet Sweep, play-action QB draw, Statue of Liberty -- any play that gets you 10 more yards and a shot at a field goal. I know they have a section on the playsheet with high-confidence calls. All three of these downs should have come from that section. Period.

Killer Mistake #4: Julian Edelman's dropped pass

With 3:26 left in the game and the Patriots at their own 37 yard-line (why was it always the 37?), they faced a second-and-four. Brady took the snap and threw a perfect pass to Julian Edelman for an easy first down. But Edelman looked to run before he secure the ball and he dropped the pass.

Edelman has had more drops this year than in past years, and that is likely a result of all the wear and tear on his body through the years. But they really needed him to catch that one. A first down there and the Titans would have started to tighten up and the game would be moving in the Patriots favor.

But after Edelman's drop, a pass to Phillip Dorsett fell incomplete and the Patriots punted. It would be their last meaningful possession of the game, because of the next Killer Mistake...

Killer Mistake #5: Allowing Derrick Henry to run late

Henry ran wild all day, ending the game with 34 carries for 182 yards (5.4 average) and a touchdown. By and large, the Patriots seemed okay with that. And it worked for most of the game; the Patriots only gave up 14 points and were in position where a single score would win them the game.

But after their final punt was downed at the Tennessee 13, it was time to bring up a safety and/or corner to make sure Henry didn't get a first down. With 3:10 on the clock and the Pats holding 3 timeouts, if they stoned the Titans on three straight downs, they would have gotten the ball back with 2:30 or so, plenty of time to drive for a winning field goal.

But Henry gained 2 yards, 5 yards, 11 yards and a first down, and then the Patriots loaded up the box to stop him. That came too late, as stopping them at that point only left the Pats with 15 seconds on the clock.

The smarter move would be to run-blitz the entire possession and if it was a pass have those players get to the QB. Their talented secondary should have been able to hold up for 1.5 seconds a play, and it also would have increased the chances of another Tannehill pick. Sitting back just allowed another 2:00 to vaporize.

One additional but not quite "Killer" mistake: the decision not to field the final punt

Please tell me that Belichick didn't sign-off to have no returner on the last punt of the game. Sure the game was pretty much over, but they tried this earlier in the season and the same thing happened. The ball bounced short and rolled deep into the Patriots end, and it took precious seconds off the clock.

Last night, the ball landed at the 25 yard-line with about 20 seconds left. By the time it was downed, it was at the 1 yard-line with 15 seconds left. Gaining 45 yards in 20 seconds is a lot more likely than gaining 69 yards in 15 seconds.

I'd like to think special teams coach Joe Judge made that decision. But I fear it's another mistake by Belichick in the "game operations" realm -- and he's had way too many of those this year compared to previous years.

Other General Problems:

1. Jake Bailey chose a bad day to have his worst performance of the year. He shanked one kick. But on four others he had two downed inside the 20 and two go into the end zone. His counterpart on the Titans, Brett Kern, had four downed inside the 20 and zero go into the end zone.

2. James White ran once for 14 yards and never again in the game. This despite the Patriots known pattern of running when Sony Michel was in the game and passing when White was in the game. Going against this tendency had worked recently, and it worked last night. It should have been used more.

3. Giving up 182 yards to Henry was unacceptable. He had 75 yards on six carries on one of the Titans' touchdown drives, for crying out loud! Make some adjustments, beat your blockers, and get this guy on the ground!

4. After Patrick Chung went out with an injury, backup safety Terrence Brooks was involved two significant plays. He gave up a touchdown and allowed a first-down on Tennessee's final possession. Blech :(

One Last Point

I've heard some in the media blame the defense for the loss. They claim that their inability to stop Henry was more problematic than the offensive futility.

Puh-lease with that crap. If your defense gives up 14 points in a home playoff game, you should win. Hell, the Buffalo Bills with their extremely limited quarterback, even they scored 19 on the road yesterday.

The loss is squarely on the offense. If BB, TB12, and JE11 come back next year, they'll have to fix that side of the ball.

Where does that leave us? Pondering a longer off-season, perhaps enjoying some playoff football where we don't have a dog in the race, and wondering when we'll find out if TB12 is about to bolt -- maybe even to the Bolts. Enjoy the time off, it's not often you get to relax in January :D

Statistical Oddity: The last two times New England played on Wild Card weekend, Ray Rice ran for 159 yards and Derrick Henry ran for 182 yards. In between those contests, the Patriots played 22 playoff games and allowed just two other 100-yard rushers (Trivia question: can you name either, or both, of the other 100-yard rushers in those games? Hint: the Patriots won both games. Answer below.)

Water-cooler wisdom: "Playoff losses are always so abrupt, but Tennessee was the better team on Saturday."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 12-5 & 0-1... :(

PPS. Trivia answer:

The Ravens' Justin Forsett ran for 129 yards in the AFC Championship Game in January of 2015, and the Seahawks' Marshawn Lynch ran for 102 in the next game, Super Bowl XLIX. Interestingly, both games ended with late interceptions to seal the victories.

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