Paradise (And Opportunities) Lost
Patriots Made Many Mistakes in AFC Championship
In virtually any endeavor in life, events never go as planned. Coaches, players, writers and fans have endeared themselves to the hyperbolic analogy of football and war for decades, and for Sunday's AFC Championship game, that analogy was apropos, if extremely hyperbolic.
This morning I started watching "A Bridge Too Far," an epic about Operation Market Garden in World War II that chronicles mistakes and blunders made by generals far from the action and lieutenants and soldiers in the midst of things, very much like coaches and players in a football game. Market Garden, like many major military campaigns turned on seemingly insignificant events that spur major ebbs and flows, frighteningly similar to the sweeping reversals of momentum in the RCA Dome.
Start with New England's first drive and the failed screen pass to Kevin Faulk. It was not a perfect pass. Tom Brady's pass was behind Faulk, but Faulk adjusted and had the ball in his hands. It was just the first of many opportunities that literally slipped through the Patriots fingers.
Faulk had blockers and lots of open green field in front of him, but that miscue resulted in the end of New England's game-opening drive and a punt.
This fumble by New England Patriots running back Laurence Maroney turned
out OK, but it was an omen of things to come, and the Patriots made too many
mistakes in losing the AFC Championship to the Indianapolis Colts, 38-34.
Two more of those golden opportunities slipped between the hands of Reche Caldwell, who had been so consistent all season. The first, in Indy's end zone, ultimately caused no damage as Brady connected with Jabar Gaffney, who made a spectacular leaping catch in the back of the end zone on the next play. But the second was devastating.
Midway through the fourth quarter, the Patriots began a drive on the Indianapolis 43 after another great punt return by Ellis Hobbs and a 15-yard facemask penalty. Caldwell was split out right, and there wasn't a Colt defender within 20 yards of him. He dashed up the field, turned, and Brady, as he had on Caldwell's earlier drop, feathered a pass right into Caldwell's bread basket.
But instead of catching the ball with his hands, Caldwell tried to catch it with his arms and body, and it fell harmlessly to the ground. Like Faulk before, Caldwell had plenty of room to run, and while the Colts caught on and probably would have stopped Caldwell from walking in for six, the drop resulted in a field goal instead of a goal-to-go situation that would have made it 35-28 and would have left the Patriots with more options on the last drives of the game.
There was rookie running back Laurence Maroney tap-dancing in the backfield, seemingly unable to decide when to run forward, losing more yards than he gained after a 9-yard run on New England's second possession of the game.
There was a distressing lack of screen plays that should have shredded the Colts defense. Maroney and Corey Dillon caught just one pass each, and Faulk never caught any. (Heath Evans caught four, but he simply doesn't have the talent of Dillon or Faulk.) And there was a surprising shortage of Dillon and Faulk running plays, when they were clearly having success -- Dillon averaged 6.9 yards per carry, and Faulk 6.8.
There was, of course, Brady's last-minute desperation pass intended for Ben Watson that Marlon Jackson intercepted, effectively ending the game. In hindsight, Brady would have preferred to throw that one away for a second chance at a last chance.
There was the prevent defense the Patriots played on the Colts final drive of the first half. Fifteen grueling plays that took only 2 minutes and 59 seconds of game time but minute after minute of weary real time.
Yes, the Patriots prevented giving up a long play and limited Indianapolis to 3 points; and, at the time, that seemed like a reasonable goal -- to keep it a two touchdown-plus game. But paired with the Colts 14-play, 6:47 touchdown drive to open the third quarter, it made reluctantly giving ground instead of playing the same defense the Patriots played for the first 27 minutes a major strategic miscalculation.
There's the 12-men-in-the-huddle penalty. Completely preventable, and certainly unproven by Phil Simms two-second overhead photo demonstration of "four here, four here, nine-ten-eleven-twelve". That turned the ensuing 7-yard pass to Caldwell and 4-yarder to Watson into 3rd-and-4 instead of 1st-and-10, and the Patriots, nearly at midfield with a 34-31 lead, punted.
There was Tully Banta-Cain's "roughing the passer" penalty. That moved Indy 12 yards to New England's 11 and the Colts scored a touchdown three plays later.
There was Hobbs "not turning his head" on a pass interference penalty that directly led to Indy's game-tying touchdown at the start of the fourth quarter.
[The veracity of these calls, I'll discuss in another post. But they were called and can only be termed mistakes now.]
Rookie wide receiver Chad Jackson was non-existant. He assisted on a kickoff coverage tackle and muffed the first half-ending kickoff return -- an insignificant play. He played only two offensive snaps. He ended the season impotently.
Quite simply, it was not championship execution.