Can Patriots Overcome This Potentially Fatal Flaw During Postseason?

Don't hold your breath


January 12

Time and time again this season, the Patriots defense needed big stops to either win games or keep comeback hopes alive. And, nearly every time, Bill Belichick’s (expensive) pride and joy couldn’t get it done.

It happened again Sunday afternoon in Miami. New England, which trailed 27-10 in the fourth quarter, scored 14 straight points to make it a three-point game with just under three minutes remaining. All the defense had to do was stop Tua Tagovailoa, who to that point only had 14 completions for 94 yards, and give the ball back to the Patriots offense, which had all the momentum. Mac Jones could’ve led New England to a game-tying field goal, if not a touchdown.

Instead, the Dolphins began the drive with a 15-yard completion to Durham Smythe. After a pair of Duke Johnson runs, Tagovailoa, facing third-and-8, scrambled 11 yards, effectively putting the game away. The Patriots later ran one play from their own 3-yard line, with a turnover resulting in a Miami touchdown as time expired.

It was yet another example of the Patriots defense needing to make one big play in a big spot, and coming up short. Yes, you could make a case that Matthew Judon was held on the Tagovailoa scramble, but Tagovailoa wouldn’t have had anywhere to run had Judon not rushed so far upfield in the first place. It was bad situational defense.

New England’s defense failed to rise to the occasion many times during the regular season. Here’s the final list:

Week 1 vs. Dolphins: After Damien Harris fumbled near the goal line, Miami led 17-16 with 3:24 left with the ball on its own 5-yard line after a holding penalty. The Patriots never got the ball back.
(Watch sequence.)

Week 3 vs. Saints: Outplayed all day, the Patriots fought back to trail New Orleans 21-13 with 9:22 left. Jameis Winston and the Saints offense then used 13 plays and 6:45 to score a game-sealing touchdown.
(Watch sequence.)

Week 4 vs. Buccaneers: New England, despite all the hoopla surrounding Tom Brady’s return, took a 17-16 lead with 4:34 remaining. The Patriots defense forced Tampa Bay into some tough situations, including a second-and-17, but ultimately allowed what proved to be a game-winning field goal.
(Watch sequence.)

Week 6 vs. Cowboys: Probably the most disturbing example on this list. The Patriots led Dallas 29-26 with 2:11 left in the fourth quarter. New England eventually put Dak Prescott and the Cowboys offense into a third-and-25 scenario, but Prescott connected with CeeDee Lamb for 24 yards, setting up Greg Zuerlein’s game-tying 49-yard field goal. After the Patriots punted on their first possession of overtime, Dallas went 80 yards for a game-winning touchdown.
(Watch sequence.)

Week 15 vs. Colts: New England made a spirited fourth-quarter comeback to make it a 20-17 game with just over two minutes left. On the second play of Indianapolis’ drive, star running back Jonathan Taylor ran 67 yards for a back-breaking touchdown.
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Week 16 vs. Bills: Embarrassed on their own field all afternoon, the Patriots made it a 26-21 game with 7:37 left in the fourth quarter. Josh Allen and the Buffalo offense then drove 75 yards in 4:05 — converting two third downs and a fourth down along the way — for a touchdown.
(Watch sequence.)

Week 18 vs. Dolphins: We’ve already covered this. Patriots allowed Tagovailoa and the Dolphins offense to pick a pair of first downs, the second of which effectively essentially ended the game.
(Watch sequence.)

To be fair, the Patriots defense did get a big stop at the end of the Week 13 win in Buffalo, helping preserve one of their most impressive victories of the season. That said, before Myles Bryant got his hands on Allen’s fourth-down pass in the red zone, the Patriots defense allowed Buffalo, which was going into the wind, to drive 67 yards before a false-start penalty forced Allen into some desperation throws. Still, New England’s defense tightened up in the red zone and got the job done. (You can click here to watch that sequence.)

So, what gives? Why did New England fail to meet the moment so often during the regular season?

Ultimately, it’s a combination of factors, including poor execution, bad play-calling and, probably, some players showing their age. However, those situations often boiled down to the talented Patriots defense needing to make one play, which it’s more than capable of doing.

“The common thread is us just not getting the job done,” Judon said Wednesday during a virtual news conference. “But luckily we’re here, we’ve got another game. And if we can’t get the job done, we all know what’ll happen. So, we’ve just gotta come out here and execute and make sure we buy us another week, buy another life.

“But if we don’t execute and we don’t get those stops, then we all know what’ll happen.”

It’s hard to envision the Patriots flipping a switch during the playoffs. If they couldn’t get big stops against three non-playoff teams, why should we believe they’ll get it done against teams that qualified for the postseason?

If you’re an optimist, you might point toward Saturday’s wild-card opponent, the Bills, as the one team New England’s defense was able to stop with the game on the line. Perhaps the Patriots can recapture what helped them succeed at Highmark Stadium over a month ago.

But we wouldn’t bet on it. At a certain point, you are who you are.

Thumbnail photo via Rich Barnes/USA TODAY Sports Images
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