Before this NFL season began, I was brimming with optimism. The Patriots addressed their biggest needs in the NFL draft, and I predicted that they’d go 13-3 and make the Super Bowl. After watching the Patriots all season, I’m convinced that they had the personnel this year to win it all.
That’s what makes this past Sunday’s loss to the Ravens so difficult to swallow.
First off, let’s give the Ravens some credit. They played a hell of a game. If there are two players who I’ve been ridiculed for hyping, it’s been Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco. I’d say that with their respective performances in this year’s playoffs, they’ve addressed their critics.
But at the end of the day, all of the Bud Light in the world can’t wash away the deflating feeling of what could have been for the Pats this year. As I awoke in the wee hours of Monday morning, the reality of the loss quickly washed over me.
Left to the confines of my own mind, the following thoughts came to me and seem to have since gained staying power.
Wes Welker’s drops have become a problem.
I have long been, and will continue to be, one of Wes Welker’s biggest proponents. This is a guy who had led the NFL in receptions in three of the last six seasons while racking up over 1,000 receiving yards in five of his last six seasons. Any way that you cut it, he’s one of the most productive players in the NFL.
The elephant in the room is obvious. Despite Welker’s value, he likely cost the Patriots Super Bowl XLVI. I, for one, did not blame him—not nearly to the extent that I blamed Asante Samuel for his drop in the first go-around against the Giants. Drops happen, and that’s that.
But Tom Brady did exactly what you’d want your quarterback to do in support of a player who has made a big drop: He went right back to him in a crucial situation, and any analyst worth his mettle will tell you that Welker’s drop on 3rd-and-7 against the Ravens was the turning point in the game. The Pats had a chance to step on the Ravens' necks, Brady threw a perfect ball, and we all know what happened from there. Oh yeah, and then he dropped another crucial pass.
Do I think that the drops are in Welker’s head at this point? No, I don’t, although I admit that they may be. As Brady said, this guy is the heart and soul of the Patriots. Few players, if any, play as hard as Welker does on every single down.
To think that this guy hasn’t won a Super Bowl in his years with the Patriots is absurd. He surely deserves one, but unfortunately, he has himself, as much as anybody else, to blame. Do I want him back? Hell yes, I do. But if he doesn’t return to New England, there’s no way around it: His drops will have sealed his fate as much as anything else.
The injuries to Rob Gronkowski and Aqib Talib were too much to overcome.
Fact: Over the last two seasons, Rob Gronkowski has been the best red-zone player in the NFL. Fact: When Aqib Talib joined the Patriots secondary this season, there was immediate improvement.
My point is not that the Patriots couldn’t win without these two guys; it’s that their odds of winning went down drastically. We saw field goals at times when the Patriots could have used Gronk's catching ability (not to mention his blocking) and gotten touchdowns. If Super Bowl XLVI taught us anything, it’s that they aren’t the same team without him.
Perhaps even more coincidentally, Talib was injured on a play that he successfully broke up. Flacco looked lost up until that point in the game and looked like Joe Montana once Talib left the game.
I realize that everyone is going to jump on this as me making excuses. To those people, let me ask you this: Can you name one team in the NFL that could win without their second-best offensive and defensive players? If you took Ray Lewis and Torrey Smith off of the Ravens, how much of a shot would they have?
Game balls to Brandon Lloyd and Aaron Hernandez.
The game wasn’t all negative. I was very impressed with the play of Aaron Hernandez (nine catches for 83 yards) and Brandon Lloyd (seven catches for 70 yards). Both guys brought their A-games, executed and made some crucial and very difficult plays for the Pats. They should continue to be weapons at Brady’s disposal in future years.
Was Lloyd the missing deep threat, the replacement Randy Moss that we all thought he might be? No, but he’s sticky as hell and fantastic along the sidelines.
Season game ball goes to the O-line.
Going into this season, everyone knew that the Patriots defense would be improved, and it was—although there’s still a long way to go. The real weakness that had me the most worried entering the season was the Patriots offensive line.
This crew was viewed with extreme skepticism throughout New England, especially early in the year. All in all, the O-line was not a problem for the Patriots this year. They kept Brady healthy and usually gave him a decent amount of time in the pocket.
The Patriots did not lose to the Ravens because Brady was under severe pressure, as we’ve seen in most of the Patriots’ recent losses. They lost to the Ravens because Baltimore beat them in all facets of the game.
Looking into the future
Looking into the future, I can honestly say that I think Brady has three productive seasons left in him. But realistically, especially given that he's 35 years old, he may only have one or two seasons where he’s not derailed by injury. Not to jinx the guy, but he’s been pretty lucky in his career thus far.
I’m firmly in the “Tom Brady needs to win a fourth Super Bowl” camp, and one or two shots at another title is not a whole lot. The good news is that the Patriots are young, have their primary weapons locked up and should be an even better team next season.
If there is a football god (aside from Roger Goodell), Brady will lob a game-winning touchdown pass to Wes Welker to win his fourth Super Bowl—as well as Welker’s first—in the next few seasons. Once again, we’ll have to wait and see.
So who do I want to win the Super Bowl, the Ravens or the 49ers? Who cares.
Geoff Roberts is the Founder & Managing Editor of howiGit.com, a New England Patriots blog.