Tom Brady's Fault? Who Is to Blame for New England Patriots' Playoff Woes?

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Tom Brady's Fault? Who Is to Blame for New England Patriots' Playoff Woes?
Jim Rogash/Getty Images

Another Patriots season over. Another empty feeling.

After Sunday's loss to the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC championship game, it is now eight straight seasons without another Super Bowl ring for the Bill Belichick-Tom Brady combination.

All the regular season wins over that span are great, and all the touchdowns and offensive mastery has been fun to watch. But both coach and player have a "Super Bowl or bust mentality," and the New England fans are no different.

 So, what has gone wrong?

 It is not that Brady is not as good as he was when the team was winning Super Bowls. Brady has led this New England offense since 2007 in a way that he was never consistently asked to do from 2001-04.

However, the change in Brady is between the way he and the offense performs in the regular season, and their performance in the playoffs, in particular, the later rounds of the playoffs. With so much of the team's success dependent on number twelve, any drop-off in his play has a dramatic impact on the team's chances. 

Let's look at some numbers (also see Ezra Klein-inspired charts below). The Patriots won Super Bowls in 2001, '03, and '04. The Patriots averaged 24 points per game in those regular seasons combined and in the playoffs. Pretty consistent. On the way to those three Super Bowls, Brady had a 62.5 completion percentage with 11 touchdowns and three interceptions, averaging 216.8 yards per game. Those are numbers that are similar to what he was doing back then in the regular season.

 The Tom Brady we have come to know since 2007 puts up statistics that dwarf the '01-04 Brady. From 2007-12, with Brady as a starter, the offense has averaged an impressive 32.6 points per game.

But that is the regular season. In the playoffs, the '07-12 Patriots have scored 24 points per game, over a touchdown less than the regular season output and the same as the less-explosive offenses from 2001, '03, and '04. When the games have gotten tougher the offense has slowed down even more - New England has played five games in either the AFC Championship or the Super Bowl since 2007. In those games, Brady has led the offense to just 17.6 points per game. 

What about Brady's numbers? In the regular season from 2007-12, he has completed 65.7 percent of his passes, with 187 touchdowns, 46 interceptions, and averaged 289.6 yards per game.

In the postseason over that same duration, in ten games, he has a 64.3 completion percentage, 22 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions, averaging 273.2 yards passing per game. 

Just like his team struggling in the later rounds, Brady has too. In the five AFC title and Super Bowl games since 2007, when the defenses get better and the stakes increase, Brady has just six touchdowns with eight interceptions, throwing for 262 yards per game.

He also has made glaring mistakes in these big games. Last year against the Ravens, he threw a pair of interceptions, including a fourth-quarter pick after the defense had just forced a Baltimore turnover. Then in the Super Bowl, he had an intentional grounding penalty in the end zone and an interception when he tried to hit the injured Rob Gronkowski with a deep pass. This past week, against Baltimore, he was intercepted twice and poor clock management may have cost New England points at the end of the first half. 

Looking at Brady's playoff numbers, especially separating the early rounds from the late rounds, it shows that he is not playing up to the standards he has set for himself when it matters most. He has now been outplayed by Joe Flacco in consecutive AFC title games, and was outplayed by Eli Manning in last year's Super Bowl. 

Further review, however, reveals that Brady also is no longer getting the same type of help from his teammates that he was when the Patriots won three Super Bowls in four years. New England won those three Super Bowls by committing only six turnovers during the nine games, while forcing 25 turnovers (+19). Conversely, from 2007-12, New England has only 10 takeaways while turning it over 18 times (-8).

 Those 25 forced turnovers from 2001-04 tell a story too: it takes players other than Brady to have made those plays. Whether offensively or defensively, in the biggest spots, the Patriots won Super Bowls by making the handful of plays that decide games. That simply is not happening now in the most important games against the toughest competition.

Thinking back to 2001, against the Raiders, before there was any idea of the tuck rule, it took a defensive stand on third and one just to give New England the ball back and a chance to tie the game. In the AFC Championship, Troy Brown returned a punt for a touchdown and Antwan Harris returned a blocked field goal for a touchdown.

The Patriots then won the Super Bowl, and Brady was the MVP. But that game was won also by Ty Law returning an interception for a touchdown, by a defense that held St. Louis to only 17 points, by a great catch by David Patten in the corner of the end zone for the team’s lone offensive touchdown. And of course by Adam Vinatieri.

Go through Patriot playoff wins over the years and each one has plays made by someone other than Tom Brady that helped change the game.  Ty Law's three interceptions of Peyton Manning; Tedy Bruschi tearing the ball away from Dominic Rhodes; Troy Brown forcing a fumble after Brady had thrown an interception; Corey Dillon running out the clock to seal a win against Indianapolis in '04 or Laurence Maroney doing the same against San Diego in '07. It was those types of plays plus Brady that led to all the wins. 

But think about the five playoff losses since 2007: two Super Bowls against the Giants, two losses to the Ravens, and one to the Jets. Where have the difference makers been for the Patriots? I am hard pressed to come up with an occurrence of someone other than Brady making a game-changing type play in those defeats.

Where does that leave us?

Any honest assessment of the Patriots has to place some of the blame for the recent playoff losses with Brady. He is an all-time great and it is a privilege to watch him play year in and year out. He earned his reputation.

Brady and the offense can score 30-plus points every week in the regular season and even in the early rounds of the playoffs. That is an accomplishment that cannot be ignored. However, while fifty-point games against the Bills in week four are well and good, those type of games feel hollow when in Super Bowls and AFC title games, this offensive juggernaut can only score in the teens. 

But, Brady needs help.

He did not win three Super Bowls alone and can't win another one all by himself either. In the 2003 AFC championship game, Brady did not play mistake-free. He threw an interception in the end zone and then did the same in the Super Bowl against the Panthers. New England though had the players around him to make up for it.

 Following the Patriots from 2001-04, maybe we took winning for granted, whether the game was at home or not, underdog or favorite. The 2001 Patriots were major underdogs in both the AFC Championship at Pittsburgh (-10) and the Super Bowl against the Rams (-14). They won both of those games and won another AFC title game on the road in Pittsburgh in 2004. In New England’s last five playoff losses, dating back to the ’07 Super Bowl, the Patriots have been favored in each game, with three of the losses coming at home. 

 The Patriots since 2007 have been placed squarely on Brady’s shoulders. If he does not play well, or makes a mistake, no one seems able to pick him up when the games are against the league’s other elite teams. His teammates need to catch the ball, his teammates need to pick up important yards, his teammates need to get defensive stops, and his teammates need to force turnovers.

 For Brady and the Patriots to win another title, it will be up to the offense from Brady on down to be more consistent when it goes up against the best; it will be up to other players to make the game-changing type plays we used to see so often. Otherwise, Patriots seasons will continue to end not with the familiar championships from early this century, but with the empty feeling that unfortunately has become all too common in New England.

 Having Rob Gronkowski healthy wouldn't hurt either. 

 

Brady’s passing

 

 

 

 

Year

Record

Completion %

TD-INT

Yards/Game

2001, 03, 04 Reg. Seasons

39-7

61.6

69-38

220.8

2001-04 Playoffs

9-0

62.5

11-3

216.8

2007-12 Reg. Seasons

65-15

65.7

187-46

289.6

2007-12 Playoffs

5-5

64.3

22-12

273.2

2007-12 Wild Card/Divisional Games

3-2

68.3

16-4

284.4

2007-12 AFC Title/Super Bowls

2-3

60.8

6-8

262.0

 

 

 

Team Stats

 

 

 

 

Year

Pts Scored-Pts Allowed

Turnovers

Takeaways

+/-

2001-04 Playoffs

24.2 / 17.2

6

25

+19

2007-12 Playoffs

24.0 / 21.7

18

10

-8

2007-12 Wild Card/Div

30.4 / 23.8

7

6

-1

2007-12 AFC Title/Super Bowl

17.6 / 19.6

11

4

-7


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