Here are 10 observations from Sunday night’s loss to the Baltimore Ravens with a look toward the future:
1. No play-makers on defense.
While Aqib Talib pretty much made the defense respectable, just with his presence (or the non-presence of substitutes failing to cover good wide receivers), the Patriots had no playmakers when it counted on defense. None. Rob Ninkovich was the closest, with his sack of Joe Flacco on third down. At one point in the first half, Kyle Arrington couldn’t hold a bad Flacco pass, and the Ravens eventually scored on that drive. January and February are where playmakers star. There were no stars on the Patriots defense on Sunday.
2. The need for Ed Reed.
This might cost the Patriots some money, but it would be worth it. The Patriots need a captain on the back end of the defense. They also need an “edge” to them, one they haven’t had in the defensive backfield (see No. 3). Reed will cost the Patriots about $16 million, guaranteed over the next two years if Belichick can convince him to forego retirement for 24 months. He is exactly what this defense needs ... a bona fide leader.
3. Chung a disappointment.
We were sold a bill of goods on Patrick Chung. He appeared to be a steal in the second round in the 2009, sort of a Rodney Harrison clone. But he was about three inches shorter (at 5-11) and 20 pounds lighter (205), and missed too many games (14 over last three years), losing his starting job to Devin McCourty. The soon-to-be free agent is a solid special teams player, but they needed him to be run-stopper, big hitter on defense and there was too little of that.
4. Rookies weren’t ready.
Sometimes, rookies are ready in January to play like, well, veterans. None of the Patriots Big 3 Kids, Chandler Jones, Donta Hightower and Alfonzo Dennard did anything of note in the playoffs. Dennard, a seventh round pick, at least was solid. Jones and Hightower were non-entities when needed on Sunday night. Are these three guys going to be the cornerstone of the next Patriots defense? It remains to be seen.
5. Must get tougher.
The Patriots were tougher in 2012 than they were in 2011. But guess what? It wasn’t tough enough. The common denominator in the last five playoff exits has been the opposition — N.Y. Giants (2007), Baltimore (2009), N.Y. Jets (2010), N.Y. Giants (2011) and Baltimore (2012) — has been tougher, in some cases much tougher. The Patriots “mighty” pass-first offense in those games averaged only 16 points per game. Whatever happened to those 12-0 defense-based wins we were accustomed to from 2001 to 2004?
6. Talib will be signed.
The Patriots have a keeper in Aqib Talib. He was their second best defensive player behind Vince Wilfork. Talib was a perfect soldier during his two months here with the team. He is big and physical, something the Patriots haven’t had at that position since Belichick has been here. Talib couldn’t say enough good things about his experience here, saying “I am a Patriot.” He’s a perfect fit and fills a need.
7. Running backs are OK.
We have to give Stevan Ridley a pass on his big fumble on Sunday night, with the Patriots moving the ball and down only eight points in the fourth quarter. That was a brutal hit by Pollard. Ridley is tougher than we originally thought. He has semi-breakaway speed and appears to have improved on blitz blocking. Shane Vereen is a great change of pace backup. And Danny Woodhead will always serve a purpose as a dependable backup in times of strife. This position hasn’t been this solid in nearly seven years.
8. Stretch the field on offense.
Either Tom Brady is the worst down-the-field passer in the NFL or offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels is afraid to call for a jump ball “bomb” that so many other quarterbacks throw. It seems that defenses play closer to the line of scrimmage, particularly the good ones in January, thus taking away some of Brady’s shorter pass opportunities. If Brandon Lloyd can’t ever get past the cornerback or safety, find a receiver who can.
9. Gronk is Brady’s
While Wes Welker, a favorite of mine, is Brady’s go-to player, particularly on third down, he isn’t as important as Rob Gronkowski. The Patriots issue, especially in these bigger games, is the offense gets too many field goals and not enough touchdowns. Gronk is a touchdown machine and he can’t be covered one-on-one near the end zone. The offense is just not as lethal without Gronk. His health might be the biggest factor in the last two playoff losses.
10. Less Brady, more team.
There’s a reason Brady has an estimated net worth of $100 million and makes $18 million annually, twice and three times as much as the second-tier stars on the Patriots. Because he’s great. Well, the Patriots needed “great” on Sunday night and it didn’t happen. Do you think Belichick is afraid to let Brady know the same thing? No. The thing is the Patriots could be better in 2013, but it still might not be enough with the emergence of Indianapolis, Seattle, and Washington, to name a few. Those teams appear to have franchise quarterbacks who are ready for prime time even earlier than Brady was. Brady is still among the top three or four quarterbacks, but no QB can do it alone. In fact, a great QB has always needed help (see Aaron Rodgers and two straight one-and-dones).
The best of the Patriots, from 2001 through 2004, was Brady making plays ... not every play. That means a good to very good defense. That means a bruising running game (when needed). And that means surviving an injury or two rather than collapsing like Humpty Dumpty.