The Patriots had made winning such an expected outcome in this decade that we, and perhaps they themselves, became a little numb to it. Think about the physical and mental toll of reaching eight consecutive AFC championship games and four of the past five Super Bowls, winning three of them. It was an insane rate of success in a sport that is brutal and constantly shifting given free agency. In retrospect, it was unsustainable. They had to have a letdown eventually, and this was it. If nothing else, they had to be worn out from all that winning.
Still, these were the Patriots, playing at home in the postseason, and no team has ever been better at shutting out all the noise and proving the skeptics wrong with sudden postseason escalations. “We have a chance to go on a revenge tour,” linebacker Kyle Van Noy said last week. You half expected them to do it one more time. As Titans Coach Mike Vrabel, a former Patriots player, acknowledged, “We are basically walking into the viper’s den.”
But this time was different. The mere fact that they were in this round of the playoffs for the first time since the 2009 season suggested that the edge had come off the blade. The Patriots were unquestionably vulnerable — losers of three of their last five games in the regular season and dealing with an extraordinary and perhaps weighty emotional issue in the uncertain status of Brady, an unrestricted free agent March 18. For all of their gilded success, they felt like underdogs against the surging Titans, who, gunned by Henry and quarterback Ryan Tannehill, had won seven of their last 10 games while averaging more than 30 points.
There was a fatalism from the Patriots coming into the night, a sense that they felt the potential finality and that they knew nothing would come to them easily.
“These are tight games, and it’s one great catch or one great tackle or one great interception or one great strip sack,” Brady said last week. “That’s just part of playing football this time of year. You’re going up against a lot of good football teams, and we’ve got to be able to make the play. And if we don’t, we know what happens. And if we do, we know what happens.”
They didn’t make enough plays. The first half ended with a 14-13 margin for the Titans, a score that held until the closing moments. But that score at intermission established that the Titans were simply more powerful. Other than the neat sleight of hand from Brady to Julian Edelman that went for a five-yard scoring run, the Patriots simply could not get in the end zone. Take the way they were stymied on three straight running plays from the 1 or 2 late in the second quarter. It loomed larger as the game went on. So did the way the Titans replied, with an absolute punch in the mouth in the last two minutes of the half, Henry chewing up whole sections of the field with his legs in just five plays to score. He rushed for 106 yards in just two periods, finished with 182 and produced 204 yards in total.
And then there were those last ineffectual, miserable sequences. Still trailing by just a point, the Patriots took over on their own 12 with 4:44 to go — enough time for another classic from Brady, right? Except they went three and out with three incomplete passes, one a drop by Edelman. That put the ball in the hands of the Titans and their bulldozer back, who didn’t give the ball back until just seconds remained and the Patriots were pinned at their 1. Brady’s final pass, if it was his last, will go down in the books as a pick-six.
So many things suggested the Patriots will be making sweeping changes in the offseason, whether or not Brady returns. Theirs was the oldest roster in the league, with an average age of 27. That wasn’t solely due to their quarterback but also to tight end Ben Watson, 39, special teams captain Matthew Slater, 34, and a defensive unit with an average age of 29.
What was unclear was how much of the Patriots’ struggles were due to Brady’s decline and how much to personnel issues and gambles that didn’t work out. Was Brady’s occasional errancy — with a quarterback rating 19th in the league at season’s end — the fault of an arm that doesn’t always do his bidding anymore and skittishness under pressure? Or was it due to a lack of weapons around him and a distrust of young, unfamiliar receivers who didn’t always hit their marks? Saturday’s defeat only underscored these questions — he completed 20 of 37 passes for 209 yards with a quarterback rating of just 59.4.
How much was on him and how much on Coach Bill Belichick for failed roster choices? Those are sure to be part of their internal deliberations.
Still, Brady presided over a dozen wins this season, and he had a record of 36-12 since turning 40. It won’t be easy, whenever it finally happens, for the Patriots to transition from Brady’s well-educated patience, his will to win and his scanning intelligence to someone unproven.
It remained unclear how much the Patriots want him or are willing to pay for another year or two of his services. Perhaps some clues could be gleaned from his last major contract negotiation, in 2013. Owner Robert Kraft said then that he would like to see Brady to retire as a Patriot, and he wanted to avoid a scenario in which he moved to another team, as Joe Montana, Emmitt Smith, Brett Favre and Peyton Manning did. The result was a contract that was front-loaded with guaranteed money.
But can they reach such an accommodation again? Brady has been chronically underpaid and unselfish and has said repeatedly he wants to play until he is 45. Nevertheless, he became just a one-year-contract player last season and wanted the ability to call his own shot about whether to stay or go when it expires. Belichick has never shown sentimentality with veterans or been willing to warp the team’s salary structure for a star player.
These are just some of the fraught issues the Patriots are facing. Nor is Brady the only one whose future as a Patriot is uncertain: A total of 18 players are set to become unrestricted free agents. And then there is the status of offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, who is entertaining interest from multiple teams to be a head coach.
All of it together suggested that what happened on the field Saturday night was certainly the end of something. It’s just not certain exactly what yet.