For what feels like the 50th time in the past five years, the New England Patriots slumped to another defeat just short of their ultimate goal. A loss to the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC Championship in 2013 can be added to a Super Bowl loss to the New York Giants in 2012, a divisional round upset to the New York Jets in 2011, another loss to the Baltimore Ravens in the Wildcard Round in 2010 and that infamous Super Bowl loss to the New York Giants in 2008.
Each season feels like a repeat of the previous for Patriots fans at this point. Even though any complaints will receive the empathy equivalent of a 21-year-old running out of his inheritance, the relative pain of consistently coming in second place will eventually take it's toll on Patriots fans. Not to mention, the team itself.
Revisiting the memories of a traumatic experience is never easy, but in order to understand why the ship continues to sink, the holes must be explored. For the Patriots, those holes may be perceived as being few and far between, but they are effective nonetheless. In fact, the first problem is one that the team cannot even control.
The Patriots prepare to win a Super Bowl ahead of every season. At least, that is the finish line that they are guiding themselves towards. The first hurdle on this trip comes in the form of the division. Playing in the AFC East has allowed the Patriots to make the playoffs in eight of the last nine seasons. With opposition such as the Buffalo Bills, New York Jets and Miami Dolphins having sporadic success over the past decade or so, the Patriots often spend a large chunk of their schedule playing games when they are able to steamroll the opposition in first gear.
Even when they do have a handful of tough opponents to overcome during the regular season, more often than not those games are spread out. Take this season as an example. Despite losing to the Arizona Cardinals in Week 2, the Patriots first real playoff caliber of opposition came in Week 3, when they lost in the dying moments to the Baltimore Ravens. The Patriots were able to follow that game up with a blowout victory over the Buffalo Bills, when they weren't being pushed for four quarters. Two playoff teams followed the next two weeks, the Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks, but the Patriots had it easy against Peyton Manning as he still dealt with the lingering issues of his neck surgeries.
After that loss in Seattle, the Patriots won a close game against the inferior New York Jets, when they made it tough on themselves. But even if you counted that as a playoff caliber test, the St. Louis Rams offered the Patriots another week when they didn't have to hit top gear at all. A surprisingly close fight at home with the Buffalo Bills followed the team's bye week, but then arrived an ordinary looking Andrew Luck. Luck's Colts were outclassed in Week 11, as the Patriots began the first of three easy games in a row. A blowout victory over the Houston Texans had fans thinking that this was their year, even more than they had previously, but after a short week they suffered the opposite side of that result against the San Francisco 49ers. Struggling to victory over the lowly Jacksonville Jaguars and shutting out the Miami Dolphins acted as the team's preparation for the playoffs.
Now, if you never played a sport(at any level), you likely won't understand the importance of playing quality opposition on a regular basis. It's almost impossible to push yourself to your limit on the field if you have a notable advantage over the team trying to stick with you. However, teams need to be pushed consistently. The term battle-hardened comes to mind. Consider the Baltimore Ravens, a battered and bruised team that will represent the AFC in the Super Bowl. For all of the quality players that team lost throughout the season, they gained an edge and ability to sustain their best efforts on a weekly basis by battling in the AFC North with the Cincinnati Bengals, Pittsburgh Steelers and even the upstart Cleveland Browns. The Ravens were able to understand their own flaws in the regular season, to then be prepared to work through them in the playoffs. The Patriots were never afforded that opportunity.
In order to win a Super Bowl, you have to beat three or four high quality teams within four or five weeks. After 16 games of lying in first, second, third or fourth gear, it's almost impossible to stay in fifth gear for that long. It's not about being the best team in the post-season, it's about playing your best football.
Surpassed the turbulence, or lack thereof, endured by the franchise during the season, their limitations on the field became obvious against the Ravens.
Most notably, the team's secondary played abysmal football. Joe Flacco threw for 240 yards and three touchdowns, but in reality he didn't have to work that hard for anything he did on the day. The lack of a pass rush was evident also, but the Ravens' excellent offensive line played a major part in giving their quarterback time to throw. Even though the Ravens have high quality players in the trenches, their receiving corps really isn't that good.
Anquan Boldin has enjoyed a renaissance to his career late in the season, but so would anyone if they faced such soft coverage. Boldin had two touchdowns and 60 yards on five receptions. Each of those receptions came in the second half, well after Aqib Talib had left the field injured. The Patriots acquired Talib at midseason because of his physical coverage and size. Without him, they have no size or physicality to match to opposing receivers. Boldin was able to catch two easy touchdowns because Devin McCourty couldn't fight him for a lofted ball over the middle and Marquis Cole let him run by him from the slot in the redzone. Cole couldn't even touch Boldin, even though the receiver isn't exactly a speedster. Flacco's other touchdown was a five yard pass to Denis Pitta, after he easily lost Steve Gregory at the goalline with his route running. Now, it would have been understandable if Pitta towered over Gregory, he is a tight end and matchup nightmare, but to lose him with route running is just amazing.
The Patriots invested in their whole defense last year and during the season, but they need to continue to improve in that area because top quarterbacks, and even lesser quarterbacks, will easily carve the current crop up with ease.
Speaking of that off-season investment, the Patriots drafted Chandler Jones in the first round of last year's draft. Jones, a defensive end, had a fine season up until he suffered multiple injuries to his ankles that limited him to a reserve role. Jones looks set to be a superstar pass rusher, but the Patriots can't expect that to be enough if they are to right the wrongs of their most recent seasons. Injuries can't be an excuse at this point in the year. The Ravens had many more injury issues than the Patriots, but they also had better depth. When it comes to pass rushers, the Ravens could rely on Pernell McPhee, Haloti Ngata, Arthur Jones, Courtney Upshaw, Dannell Ellerbe, Terrell Suggs and Paul Kruger to all at least contribute with pressure at different stages. Comparitively, without Jones the Patriots got much less from Rob Ninkovich, Vince Wilfork, Justin Francis, Brandon Spikes, Jerod Mayo, Brandon Deaderick and Jermaine Cunningham. The Patriots need to build a better supporting cast of pass-rushers around Jones. Finding the primary pass-rusher is normally the most difficult part of building a front seven, so the Patriots don't really have any excuses.
It's impossible to solely criticize the defense after a loss that saw the offense finish with 13 points. Of course, the Patriots had historically good production in the regular season, but much of that came when they were blowing out teams who would never see the playoffs. The Patriots' offense is beautifully designed and almost perfectly balanced. Losing Rob Gronkowski certainly didn't help, but that cannot be pointed to as the reason they couldn't score more late on. The Patriots had handled the loss of Gronkowski amongst others for most of the season. They still entered the game with much superior individual talent in Wes Welker, Brandon Lloyd, Aaron Hernandez, Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley. Couple that with an excellent offensive line and it's clear that there are no personnel issues in New England. The problems come when teams are able to match up with the Patriots' initial approach. Very few teams in the league have the personnel to matchup to the Patriots' players, but those that do can find plenty of success. That is because the Patriots don't have a plan b.
It's hard to really fault them for not looking to change things up in the post-season. Their normal offense bull-rushes it's way through the regular season with ease. Rarely does the offense stall, even if it stutters at times. It's amazing that the Patriots have found the perfect offensive system and personnel combination to blow out their opposition. In fact, that is a feat that doesn't receive anywhere near enough credit. Yet, when forced from their comfort zones, Tom Brady, Wes Welker and company can't find a different dimension to carry them to victory. Look at the Ravens' offense. It is clearly not one of the best or most talented in the NFL, but it does have the ability to beat you in different ways and with different approaches.
The Patriots are able to run the ball and pass it, but can they tighten up the formation to overpower you, before switching to a screen play with a running-back that catches pass rushers upfield or then switching it up to take deep shots, opposed to their typical short passing attack. Much of this can be done with the Patriots' personnel, but the Patriots don't look to. The Ravens proved that changing an offensive coordinator can completely revamp the impact of an offense in pressure situations. Ray Rice offers them a running back who can do everything, and he is used as such, while Dennis Pitta and Anquan Boldin work to move the chains with Torrey Smith keeping the safeties occupied going deep. The Ravens should be able to do all that with their skill position players, but they don't when it gets to this stage of the season.
If they made no changes to this roster and coaching staff, this team would likely propel it's way through the regular season with ease once again. However, once a stern test rears it's head once again, we may be seeing another repeat of this ongoing struggle next season.