Before this NFL season began, I was brimming with optimism. The Patriots has addressed their biggest needs in the NFL draft, and I predicted they’d go 13-3 and make the Super Bowl. And 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 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 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 the morning following Sunday’s game, 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.
1) 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 3 of the last 6 seasons, while racking up 1000+ receiving yards in 5 of his last 6 seasons. Any way 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 a Super Bowl last year. I for one did not blame him – not nearly to the extent that I blame Asante Samuel for his drop the first go ’round 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 their 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 neck, Tom threw a perfect ball, and we all know what happened from there. Oh yea, and then he dropped another crucial pass.
Do I think the drops are in Welker’s head at this point? No, I don’t (although I admit that they may be). As Tom Brady said, this guy is the heart and soul of the Patriots. Few players, if any, play as hard every single down as Welker does. 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’s got himself as much as anybody 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 him fate as much as anything.
2) The injuries to Rob Gronkowski and Aqib Talib were too much to overcome - 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 – fact. 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 instead of touchdowns, where we could have used Gronk (not to mention his blocking). If last year’s Super Bowl taught us anything it’s that we aren’t the same team without him. And perhaps even more ironically, Aqib Talib was injured on a play that he successfully broke up. Joe Flacco looked lost up until that point in the game, and looked like Joe Montana once Talib left the game. I realize 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? Take Ray Lewis and Torrey Smith off the Ravens… how much of a shot would they have ?
3) Game balls to Brandon Lloyd and Aaron Hernandez - In this game, it wasn’t all negative. I was very impressed with the play of Aaron Hernandez (9 catches, 83 yards) and Brandon Lloyd (7 catches, 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 Tom Brady’s disposal in future years. Was Brandon 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.
4) 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 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 Tom Brady healthy, and usually gave him a decent amount of time in the pocket. We did not lose to the Ravens because Tom Brady was under severe pressure, as we’ve seen in most of the Patriots’ recent losses. We lost to the Ravens because they beat us in all facets of the game.
5) Looking into the future – Looking into the future, I can honestly say that I think Tom Brady has 3 productive seasons left in him – he’s 35 now. But realistically, especially given his age, he may have 1 or 2 seasons of those three 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 4th 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), Tom Brady will lob a game winning touchdown pass to Wes Welker to win his fourth Super Bowl, and 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.