That series, which could have resulted in a big lead, ended with three unproductive runs and symbolized everything that ultimately doomed the Patriots’ season in a stunning, 20-13 loss to the Tennessee Titans in the first round of the NFL playoffs. It showcased the dysfunction of an offense absent its usual talent, typified the struggles the Patriots offense had in the second half of the season and became an example of a little thing the “Do Your Job” Patriots wouldn’t normally let slip.
This performance ended the Patriots season, and possibly legendary quarterback Tom Brady’s career with the team. He will be a free agent for the first time in his career this offseason. These factors begged a question that has rarely been broached in New England since 2001: Is the dynasty dead?
It’s impossible to say. Brady offered little indication in his postgame news conference, saying only that it was “pretty unlikely” he would retire and that he wasn’t going to try to predict the future. Coach Bill Belichick didn’t answer much at his postgame news conference, and he likely won’t in the future.
Belichick’s chosen method of self-reflection, game tape, won’t be kind either. He’ll see those miscues. He’ll see an historic day from Titans running back Derrick Henry. The NFL rushing champion torched the Patriots for 182 yards, the most ever against a Belichick-coached Patriots team in a playoff game. He’ll see the way another former player, Titans coach Mike Vrabel, outfoxed him. (Belichick is now 14-14 all time against former players or assistants.)
Vrabel’s defining decision came late in the fourth quarter. The Titans seemed poised to add to their lead when Ryan Tannehill picked the exact wrong moment to make the sort of miscue the Miami Dolphins once jettisoned him for. He fumbled the snap on third down and presented Vrabel with a choice: Try to convert on 4th-and-3 from the Patriots’ 34-yard line, kick a 50-plus-yard field goal with the worst kicking unit in the last 32 years, or punt.
Vrabel elected to punt — but not before deploying a dark-arts trick he likely learned from Belichick. The Titans utilized three penalties (a delay of game penalty followed by a false start, followed by a Patriots offsides penalty) to bleed one minute and 50 seconds off the clock, shortening the game by about 20 percent. It was fair to wonder whether this strategy — designed to give the Patriots less time to mount a comeback — may have been the Titans playing themselves. They might get the ball back after a Patriots score and not have enough time to mount their own comeback.
But the Patriots didn’t score, with two more miscues looming large. Julian Edelman, the Patriots’ defining wide receiver in the second half of the dynasty, dropped a pass on second and short, and the Patriots were forced to punt. Edelman was involved in another late-game mistake, as he allowed Tennessee’s punt with less than 30 seconds remaining to roll down to the 1-yard line, draining seconds off the clock, setting up Brady and the offense in an impossible position and leading to that game-sealing pick-six, by former Patriot Logan Ryan.
The play came to resemble the game, the once-great a step slow, an uncharacteristic miscue from a player who for so long symbolized why this team was so feared. Those little things becoming big mistakes painted the Patriots as a dynasty on fumes, and left most people who watched wondering whether they had just seen the end.
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