The defending Super Bowl champions went down in the AFC Championship game. With an aging Brady, where do the Patriots go from here?
The New England Patriots started the 2015 regular season as their usual dominant selves. They won 10 straight and had the largest scoring margin in the NFL (+14.1). Unsurprisingly, quarterback Tom Brady played very well, averaging the most passing yards per game through Week 11. By that point, the defense, a force to be reckoned with, allowed the fewest points per game in the league. All in all, the Patriots looked like a well-oiled machine. Efficiency metrics (DVOA) confirmed their dominance―they were the most efficient team in the league by a solid margin.
In Week 12, the Patriots visited the Denver Broncos on a snowy Sunday night. Despite taking an early 14-0 lead, they suffered their first loss. Led by quarterback Brock Osweiler, the Broncos hung around long enough to get to overtime, where C.J. Anderson broke a 48-yard touchdown run. It was a very close game, but the key for the tenacious Broncos’ defense was that they got to Brady. On average, Brady took about 5 hits in his previous 10 games. The Broncos landed 13 hits on him in Week 12.
In Week 13, the Patriots played the Philadelphia Eagles in Foxborough. Though the Eagles certainly got some lucky breaks on special teams and defense (e.g. blocked punts, returned punts, returned interceptions) to help them win the game, something was off in Brady’s play. He threw two interceptions, his most in the season, and recorded his third-worst QBR as well. The causal factor once again was hits. The Eagles hit Brady 12 times that game, ostensibly rattling the superstar quarterback.
These two losses didn’t set the Patriots too far back, however. They cruised over the Houston Texans and Tennessee Titans, clinching another AFC East Title in the process. Both the Jets and Dolphins played the Patriots tough enough to win in the final two weeks of the season, which put New England in the second seed for the playoffs. On the whole, the 2015 regular season was a success. According to Football Outsiders, the Pats had the sixth most efficient team, the fifth best offense, and the twelfth best defense. In a fairly equal AFC, the Patriots had a manageable route to Super Bowl 50.
After handling the Kansas City Chiefs quite easily―at no point after halftime were the Chiefs closer than a touchdown - the Patriots had to go to Denver once more to face the best defense in the league. Denver has the rare of distinction of being practically the best defense in every measurable way. They’re the most efficient, the most efficient lately, the best pass defenders, the fourth-best run defenders, and have the highest sack percentage (DVOA, Weighted Defense, Pass Rank, Run Rank, Sack %).
To make matters worse for New England, defensive coordinator Wade Phillips and the rest of the Broncos’ unit knew that hitting Brady was the most important objective for the AFC title game. Stopping the run would be easy, since New England had a close-to-average ground attack throughout the season. The Broncos pass defense has the talent to frustrate Brady while the rushers attack. And their system worked (start at 1:40 to see just the hits).
The Broncos got to Brady all game. According to Pro Football focus, although the Broncos blitzed a season-low 17.2% of the time on Sunday, they hit Brady 20 times―the most any quarterback has been hit in a decade. On nearly three of every four drop backs, the Broncos successfully created pressure. Because New England lacks a legitimate running game―and even an average one would have struggled against Denver―Brady had to throw 56 times. This sort of volume was ill-advised against the best pass defense in the league, but the Patriots had no choice. Clearly, the Broncos’ defense was just too much.
Could New England’s offensive line be to blame as well? Because of injuries and a series of rotations, the O-line has never really had any consistency. Their adjusted sack rate was 18th in the NFL, which falls below average, but doesn’t make them particularly bad. In fairness, nothing might have worked against the hungry Broncos’ pass rush.
Despite the apparent dominance of the Broncos’ defense, the Patriots were actually a two-point conversion away from overtime. In fact, if Stephen Gostkowski made an extra point after New England’s first TD, the two-point conversion wouldn’t have been necessary. Even with a patchwork offensive line, no running game, and a rattled Brady, the Patriots nearly battled back.
So what really went wrong for this team? In the AFC Championship game itself, offensive line weakness and an excessive reliance on the pass were the two most identifiable factors. Broadly speaking, however, the biggest factor in the Patriots’ demise was injury. Injury created holes in the offensive line, and injury took away their running threats.
A total of 21 players ended up on the Pats’ reserve lists this year. Most importantly, New England lost the ability to run the ball when RB Dion Lewis tore his ACL. OT Nate Solder would have improved the Patriots’ offensive line considerably, as he could have replaced Sebastian Vollmer, who then could have replaced Marcus Cannon. RB LeGarrette Blount was missed also, since Brandon Bolden, James White, and Steven Jackson managed little success on the ground. Without a ground game or legitimate play-action ability, Brady had to carry more than was wise against the Broncos’ vicious pass defense. The Patriots went with the best strategy for their personnel, but their personnel was just a little too weak to handle the Broncos.
Moving forward though, the Patriots have little to worry about. Despite his age, Tom Brady does not seem to have lost his greatness as a quarterback, and Bill Belichick should be able to devise schemes that capitalize on the Pats’ strengths. Gronkowski, Edelman, and Amendola are solid weapons for Brady, and if the Patriots incorporate a better rushing attack, their offense will look even better. Additional signings should come on the defensive side of the ball, where there were fewer injuries, but more room for improvement.
Bottom line: The Pats suffered injuries and lost to the superior team. However, in a relatively weak AFC, they certainly still have the opportunity to make another deep playoff run in the season to come.
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- Rob Gronkowski
- Tom Brady
- Stephen Gostkowski
- Julian Edelman