Date of Birth: February 3, 2002
Date of Death: January 10, 2010
It’s official: the Patriots’ dynasty is over.
After the 33-14 home playoff loss to Baltimore—in one of the worst games New England’s played in Bill Belichick’s 10-year tenure—the team’s unprecedented run as a perennial Super Bowl contender has succumbed to its death.
It was born out of nowhere eight years ago during the 2001 season—Tom Brady’s first taste of the NFL and only Belichick’s second season as head coach. New England’s last-second Super Bowl victory over the Rams launched the dynasty, which witnessed the Patriots win three championships in four years.
But the Ravens emphatically stomped on it Sunday, running through the heart of the Pats’ defense, which allowed an astounding 234 yards on the ground, including Ray Rice’s 83-yard touchdown run on the first play from scrimmage.
For a team that was money at home this season—the only squad to defend its home turf all season—New England couldn’t have looked any worse playing at Gillette Stadium, where Brady had been 7-0 in the playoffs before Sunday’s embarrassing defeat.
Honestly, when’s the last time the Patriots’ faithful booed the home team, especially so early in a football game?
Defensively, it was the story all season, with a defense that seemingly couldn’t stop anyone on its schedule. Despite only allowing a fifth-best 17.8 points per game during the regular season, the unit was middle-of-the-pack in the league and the 13th-ranked run defense showed it against Rice and the Ravens’ running attack.
Granted, the offense didn’t help out its defensive counterpart. Brady threw three ill-advised picks in the first quarter, leading directly to 17 points for Baltimore.
But Rice’s quick burst to the end zone on the opening play set the tone for what was to follow. In each of New England’s seven losses in 2009, the defense allowed at least a couple big plays, and Rice was one of many playmakers to burn the Patriots this season.
Given that performance—not only on Sunday but through most of the regular season—we can now say with absolute certainty that Belichick’s decision to ship off both Mike Vrabel and Richard Seymour was a big mistake on his part. Amidst all the off-season losses New England suffered over the last two years, it was foolish to think replacing key veterans with young talent would be a seamless transition, because it simply wasn’t.
The Patriots defense is now in total rebuild mode entering a potentially uncapped off-season.
Offensively, as poorly as Brady played—turning the ball over three times in his first playoff game since the Super Bowl XLII loss—the Patriots pass protection was nonexistent. Throughout the abominable first half, Ray Lewis and Terrell Suggs were constantly in Brady’s grill, forcing throws that the five-time Pro Bowler doesn’t usually make.
The pressure Baltimore’s front seven brought all afternoon made Brady look overmatched for the first time since his rookie season in 2001. Even for a professed Patriot hater, it was surreal to watch Brady fall apart in a big playoff game in Foxboro.
The Patriots quarterback desperately missed the services of Wes Welker, who ripped his knee apart and won’t likely be returning until the midway point of the 2010 season.
Without the nimble slot receiver, who caught 123 passes for 1,348 yards, it’s clearly not the same offense, and Brady looked surprisingly lost with no targets, as the Ravens simply doubled Randy Moss.
New England couldn’t run the ball either, putting a lot of pressure on Brady to air it out. The veteran Kevin Faulk rushed for 52 yards on 14 carries, while Laurence Maroney had a mere two yards on the ground. If the Patriots were to overcome the loss of Welker, a formidable rushing attack would’ve sufficed, but a reliable running game hasn’t been there all season.
At the same time, however, New England played so terribly at home that it’s hard to fathom the Patriots beating Baltimore, even with Welker’s presence on the field. It was that bad.
Looking ahead to the offseason, Belichick and his Patriots staff have a lot of work ahead of themselves if the franchise has a hope of reaching tops in the NFL again.
Certainly whenever you have Belichick and Brady, who will be healthier and more polished next season, there’s always hope.
But the shopping list for Belichick this off-season is probably longer than he can ever remember as the Patriots head man—besides maybe his first year in New England (2000).
More than ever, the Patriots need to dive into the free-agent market and pick up some top-end talent if they want to compete next year. Forget about pinching pennies on top free agents, which have been a rarity since the Super Bowl run. They simply have to spend money to fill in the ever-growing chinks in the Patriots’ once unbreakable armor.
The 2010 NFL Draft will also have to cover almost every major position defensively—defensive line, linebacker, and safety—as well as a top-flight running back to compliment Brady and the passing game.
If they don’t improve in the areas that hurt them this season, and ultimately resulted in the home playoff loss, the Patriots we knew in the 2000s will quickly fade into obscurity.