The road to the Super Bowl in the AFC no longer goes through Foxborough, Massachusetts. Not at this point, at least.
The New England Patriots lost their grip on the top seed in the AFC playoffs Sunday night in Houston. Their offensive struggles continued, and quarterback Tom Brady’s frustration was on vivid display. Their usually mighty defense also had its issues and the Patriots lost to the Texans, 28-22.
“I think we’re all trying to do a good job out there,” Brady said at his postgame news conference. “I give them credit. They played well. We didn’t make enough plays. This wasn’t a great game.”
Indeed it wasn’t. The defeat dropped the Patriots to 10-2. The Baltimore Ravens have the No. 1 seed for now. They improved to 10-2 with their narrow triumph at home over the San Francisco 49ers earlier Sunday, and they hold the tie-breaker advantage after beating the Patriots in Baltimore last month. The Patriots’ lead over the second-place Buffalo Bills in the AFC East was trimmed to a single game.
Brady had three touchdown passes, two of them to running back James White, and threw an interception in a 24-for-47, 326-yard passing performance. The Patriots made a late push. They scored two touchdowns in the game’s final four minutes and nearly recovered an onside kick in the final minute after Brady’s touchdown pass to wide receiver Julian Edelman. But it was too little, too late.
“We’ll see if we can get to a good place and put ourselves in a good position,” Brady said. “We’ve got a tough one this week [at home Sunday against the Kansas City Chiefs]. It’s a long flight home. We’ll try to get ready and get back at it.”
Brady’s exasperation with the offensive inconsistencies showed during the first half when the NBC cameras caught him yelling and gesturing as he left the field, then tossing his helmet into the air in disgust as he reached the sideline. While on the sideline, Brady could be seen telling Edelman and fellow wideout Phillip Dorsett: “Listen up. We’ve got to be faster, quicker, more explosive.”
The Patriots’ pass protection isn’t the biggest issue now, with left tackle Isaiah Wynn back in the lineup. This is on Brady and his receivers.
“He is holding the ball longer, I think, than he has at any point this season,” analyst Cris Collinsworth said on the NBC telecast during the second half. “And yet they’re not getting the separation.”
After a dropped pass by tight end Matt LaCosse, Collinsworth said: “The routine plays aren’t routine any more.”
Brady, at 42, too often has looked his age this season. There are no reinforcements on the way. Tight end Rob Gronkowski has remained in retirement and no longer is eligible to play this season. The Patriots do not appear inclined to re-sign wide receiver Antonio Brown, who remains under investigation by the NFL and could be placed on paid leave even if he is signed by a team.
It could be time, yet again, to wonder if the Patriots are done, if they will fall shy of a seventh Super Bowl title with Brady and Coach Bill Belichick. Will Brady, whose contract voids after this season, do the practically unthinkable and consider playing elsewhere next season, assuming that he continues playing? Is this finally it for the Patriots’ reign?
It always has been clear that whenever it finally crumbles for the Patriots, it probably won’t be pretty. Brady has said that he wants to keep playing into his mid-40s. Belichick is known for getting rid of players a year too early rather than a year too late. Over the years, he has unceremoniously parted with some of his greatest players and his best team leaders. Will it be any different with his greatest player of all?
But, then again, counting out Belichick, Brady and the Patriots has been a futile exercise for two decades. Does anyone really want to count them out now and risk being wrong again? It’s not like this is a 6-6 team. It’s a 10-2 team. Yes, it would be a formidable task to have to go on the road and beat quarterback Lamar Jackson and the Ravens in the AFC title game. The Ravens are on an eight-game winning streak and own victories over the Seattle Seahawks, Patriots, Texans and 49ers. Jackson could be the league’s MVP.
But would the task be any more daunting than last season’s, when Brady and the Patriots went to Kansas City in January for the AFC championship game and beat quarterback Patrick Mahomes, the NFL’s MVP, and the Chiefs en route to a Super Bowl triumph over the Los Angeles Rams? Just when you think it’s impossible for the Patriots to go to another Super Bowl or win another Lombardi Trophy, that’s when it will happen.
On Sunday night, however, the Patriots mostly were overmatched to end a week in which they had a long list of ill players, to the point that they utilized two team planes to travel to Houston to separate the sick players from those who were well.
“I think guys just battled hard,” Brady said. “I think you deal with a lot of adversity over the course of the season. I don’t think that had any effect on the game. Trying to figure out how to do a better job for 60 minutes is what’s most important. I’m proud of the guys the way they fought through the week. We played against a good team on the road. And when you don’t play good, you don’t win. So we didn’t deserve it.”
Texans Coach Bill O’Brien, a former Patriots assistant, beat Belichick for the first time in six tries.
“It’s huge,” Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson told NBC after the game. “It’s a big one, especially for this organization, this franchise, the city, for us this year. I mean, we can play with the top team in the NFL. …That’s the GOAT. Especially for me, before he hangs it up, I had to at least get one. The first two, I was 0-2. He got me. I had to get this one.”
Watson threw three touchdown passes for the Texans, who improved their record to 8-4. He also scored a touchdown after taking a trick-play option pitch from wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins. It officially was ruled a touchdown catch for Watson since Hopkins’s pitchout went forward.
Watson and the Texans made the Patriots appear vulnerable. But with the Patriots, appearing vulnerable during the regular season does not always translate to being beatable when the games that matter the most arrive.
“We’re battling,” Brady said. “We’re trying as hard as we can. Hopefully we can make enough plays. … It all remains to be seen. You can make a bunch of predictions and so forth. But that’s not what it’s about. It’s about going out there and doing it. A lot of guys made some plays tonight. We’ll try to build on it and see if we can do better next week.”