By Gregg Easterbrook
Since taking the field with a 18-0 record in Super Bowl XLII, just 60 minutes from perfection, the New England Patriots have not won a playoff game. In their latest postseason collapse, versus the new York Jets, New England's offense, averaging a league-best 32 points, was held to 14 points at home until a garbage-time touchdown with seconds remaining.
There are many reasons for New England's postseason woes: some specific to the Patriots, others generic to all football, one particular to a great performance by the Jets' defense. But Tuesday Morning Quarterback thinks this is the core reason: The football gods are not yet finished punishing Bill Belichick for Spygate.
Belichick suffered public humiliation -- plus the Patriots' loss of a first-round draft choice -- when it was revealed that for years he had staff methodically film other teams' sidelines. But Belichick has never owned up to what seemed like cheating to practically everyone except him. Though NFL prohibitions against sideline filming are crystal clear, Belichick insisted he mistakenly believed such filming was allowed. To sum the whole of Spygate: If Belichick really thought filming the opposition sideline was allowed, why didn't the Patriots do so openly? After being caught, Belichick said he wished "to apologize to everyone who has been affected." But he's never admitted to cheating, hard as it is to think of any other word for what Belichick did. Apparently the football gods are still angry.
When the Patriots were denied perfection by the New York Giants, your columnist thought that was Belichick's punishment. The next season New England went 11-5 but was denied a playoff appearance: perhaps, I thought, that concludes the punishment. The next season the Patriots outscored opponents by a spectacular 142 points, yet played terribly in their home postseason opener, losing to the Baltimore Ravens 33-14. That, I thought, must be the end of the punishment. This year New England finished 14-2 with the league's highest-scoring offense, then lost its first playoff game at home.
Punishment finally concluded? Perhaps not, since to paraphrase Longfellow, the mills of the football gods grind slow, yet they grind exceeding small. In mythology, the gods punish hubris by imposing frustration -- allowing a mortal to come close to his desires, then be denied. That's what keeps happening to Belichick. Perhaps until such time as Belichick may do the right thing and admit that he cheated, the football gods will continue to punish this team. It's a shame that New England fans are caught in the backwash.
Other explanations for the Patriots' collapse:
• The Jets watch NBC. Three weeks ago Rodney Harrison, a former New England star who's now an NBC analyst, said the way to beat Tom Brady was to jam his receivers at the line while mixing coverages in the center of the field. Too many teams, Harrison said, show Brady backed-off simple coverages because they're afraid of giving up a big play. Jam and mix instead.
That's what Jersey/B did. Its corners were almost always on the line, jamming receivers to throw them off routes. Linebackers jammed the New England tight ends: just before the fateful botched fake punt, Brady tried a quick out to tight end Rob Gronkowski on third-and-4, but Gronkowski was jammed at the line by linebacker David Harris and stumbling as the ball arrived. Jersey/B spent most of the contest in a 3-3-5, with the extra defensive back, Drew Coleman, sometimes playing man-to-man and sometimes playing zone. The Jets used combo coverages: man-to-man on some receivers, zone on others. Brady expected to be blitzed -- like all top quarterbacks, he wanted to be blitzed -- but the Jets rarely sent more than four rushers. It was a Rodney Harrison game plan. Rex Ryan should send Harrison a fruit basket.
[+] EnlargeTom Brady
Greg M. Cooper/US PresswireThe gods toy with men for amusement -- in this case, the football gods toy with the Patriots.
• Defense trumps offense in the playoffs. The 1998 Minnesota Vikings went 15-1 in the regular season, setting what was then the record for points scored; they then lost at home in the NFC championship. In 1990 and 1991, the Buffalo Bills were the NFL's highest-scoring team; they lost their first Super Bowl 20-19 and in losing the next, scored only 10 points until garbage time. The 1995 San Francisco 49ers were the league's highest-scoring team, then scored 17 points in losing their playoff opener at home. The 2007 Patriots hold the NFL' s all-time scoring record, yet scored only 14 points in their Super Bowl loss. The 2010 Oregon Ducks were college football's highest scoring team, averaging a hard-to-believe 49 points, yet scored only 19 points in their BCS title loss.
High-scoring offenses need rhythm, which is great when it's there -- but such offenses can become discouraged if the team doesn't fly down the field. Proficient defenses are about disruption and maximum effort on every snap. Obviously, every football team wants a high-scoring offense. But a top defense generally (not always) trumps a top offense.
• The playoffs are about mindset. During the regular season, if you lose a game, oh well, there's another one next week. During the postseason, lose and you go home. This cranks up the pressure, and some teams handle pressure better than others. The Jets lost to the Patriots 45-3 during the regular season and said, "Oh well." They came into Gillette Field on Sunday, in a do-or-die situation, mentally stronger than the Patriots. Their mindset was to destroy New England, while New England's mindset was to finesse the Jets. New England's mindset obviously has good points -- it sure worked in the regular season. But say what you will about the Rex Ryan show and all the Jets' crazy shenanigans, the result was an extremely determined mindset.
Pressure hits maximum in the Super Bowl, where all the players and coaches who have reached that point are good, and mindset often is decisive. The four teams still standing -- the Steelers, Bears, Packers and Jets -- all play power defense. Who's got the mindset for the upcoming maximum pressure?
In other football news, "the Seattle Seahawks" are now the answer to the future trivia question, "What was the only team in football history to play 18 games and lose 10?" High school and college teams never appear in 18 games. Many NFL teams have reached the 18th game, but all previous NFL teams to do this began the postseason with winning records. A couple of 8-8 teams reached the NFL postseason, but it's impossible to advance from 8-8 to 8-10; a couple 4-5 teams reached the postseason during the 1982 strike, but no NFL team played 18 that season. On Sunday, Seattle became the NFL team to finish a season 8-10.
Seahawks' players returning to their hometowns this winter will be able to swagger around saying, "Yeah baby, first 8-10 football team, nobody will ever take that away from us." They'll be telling their grandchildren, "I was on the only 8-10 football team of all time."
And in other football news, What the Martz! The Chicago Bears leading 28-3 early in the fourth quarter against the losing-record Blue Men Group, Mike Martz sent in a trick play -- tailback Matt Forte lines up in the Wildcat, then throws long. What the Martz? The Bears have the game all but sewn up, and should be grinding the clock in order to get starters off the field. Instead trick play, interception, Seahawks quickly make the margin 28-10 and Lovie Smith is forced to leave his starters in until the two-minute warning -- Smith remembers the Giants had a 21-point fourth-quarter lead against the Philadelphia Eagles and lost.
As the what-the-Martz pass fluttered into Seattle hands, whoops of celebration must have been heard in homes and taverns across Wisconsin. The Bears next host the Packers, who played Saturday, and rested starters late in a walkover against Atlanta. The failed trick play triggered a sequence that forced Chicago to keep its starters on the field. Green Bay will now enter the NFC championship with its starters having had a full day more rest than Chicago's. Games have been decided by less.
Stats of the Week No. 1: In the past three seasons, New England is 3-4 versus the Jets and 32-11 versus all other teams.
Stats of the Week No. 2: In three playoff appearances with Aaron Rodgers as its starting quarterback, Green Bay has scored 114 points.
Stats of the Week No. 3: Santonio Holmes has scored touchdowns in five of his six career playoff games.
Stats of the Week No. 4: Atlanta and New England were a combined plus-42 on turnovers in the regular season and a combined minus-4 in their home playoff games.
Stats of the Week No. 5: Versus Pittsburgh, Baltimore is on a 6-5 streak in the regular season and a 0-3 streak in the postseason.
Stats of the Week No. 6: In three postseason games against Pittsburgh, the Ravens' offense has averaged 158 yards.
Stats of the Week No. 7: Since the start of the 2009 season, the Steelers are 15-4 when Troy Polamalu plays and 6-8 when he does not.
Stats of the Week No. 8: Matt Ryan has followed a 19-1 streak in home starts with a 1-2 streak.
Stats of the Week No. 9: Tom Brady is on a 28-0 streak in regular-season home starts and a 0-2 streak in postseason home starts.
Stats of the Week No. 10: In the last four years, the Patriots are 51-13 in the regular season and 2-3 in the postseason.
« Back to index