The New England Patriots will be watching the Super Bowl from the stands as they fell 20-18 to the Denver Broncos. There is no one single player or coach at fault for this loss; the Broncos defense was outstanding and the Patriots couldn't adjust until the final quarter. But there will be plenty of decisions by the coaching staff that deserves additional scrutiny.
Let's recap the moments that led to the Patriots demise, and try to explain the coaches' thought processes at the times of the decisions.
Losses to the Broncos and Eagles
These losses don't rest with the coaching staff, but instead with freak plays that were the result of injuries or poor execution by the players. The Broncos won after an injury to Dont'a Hightower uncorked the Denver rushing attack, as well as a fumbled punt by Chris Harper, who was only playing due to the injuries to Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola. The Eagles won with three incredible return scores on a punt block, a punt return, and a pick six.
The Patriots finished the season tied with the Broncos at 12-4, and a win in either one of these scenarios would have gifted New England homefield advantage (and a win against Denver would have sent Peyton Manning and company to play the wild card round). The coaches were playing safe with the injuries in this game as linebacker Jamie Collins possibly could have played against Denver, and then the Patriots faced the Eagles without Rob Gronkowski due to a knee injury.
Kicking the ball in overtime to the Jets
New England was extremely shorthanded against New York and still almost won the game. The Patriots decided to kick off in overtime, and the Jets promptly responded with a five-play touchdown drive to win the game. Many were upset that the coaching staff decided to kick the ball instead of trust that Tom Brady and the Patriots could score.
The Patriots staff was playing the odds. The offense only reached the end zone once the entire game, and that was on the team's final drive in the fourth quarter. Perhaps the offense was clicking, but the team was able to generate field goal opportunities. If the defense could hold the Jets offense to a punt, then New England would have only needed a field goal to win the game, which was considered the more likely option.
From my perspective, I understand the Patriots thoughts. The New England defense, even with starting safeties Patrick Chung and Devin McCourty out for the game, had stifled the Jets for the majority of the second half. A three-and-out could have given New England the ball with just 40 yards needed to win the game. The gamble didn't pay off.
Punting the first half against the Dolphins
The Patriots essentially shortened the game against Miami by rushing the ball for nearly the entire first half. Maybe the coaching staff wanted to develop a rushing attack, or maybe they wanted to avoid injuries to the wide receivers. Whatever the reasoning, the Patriots burned through the first half and then were unable to put points on the board in the second half to win the game.
This is probably the most glaring mistake by the coaches all season. It's one thing to try and avoid injuries; it's another to let homefield advantage slip away when it was entirely preventable. Why not play hard the first half and then work on the run game in the second half? The Dolphins were a bottom feeder team that were looking to close out their season. By spotting a first half lead, Miami was energized and trying to win in the second half.
New England should have tried to win this game as the Broncos homefield advantage definitely played a role in the AFC Championship game. The Patriots offensive line was a mess and the volume made it even more difficult to communicate- and the silent snap count was easily read by the Denver defensive line.
Electing the receive the opening kick off
This was a shocker. The Patriots wanted to put early points on the board to force Peyton Manning and the Broncos to play from behind. The decision didn't pay off as the Patriots punted early and the Broncos responded with an easy score (which we'll cover below).
Why would the Patriots change it up? They had faith in their game plan.
Playing soft coverage against the Broncos on the opening drive
The Patriots defensive backs were aligning well over the top of the Broncos wide receivers on the opening drive, to try and entice Peyton Manning to throw the ball. Maybe New England didn't get the memo, but Manning can still throw those timing routes (comebacks, hooks) on the outside. Defending the receivers well over the top leaves the defense wide open to those exact passes.
It didn't make sense. Luckily the Patriots adjusted and, surprise, Manning was ineffective for the rest of the day. 60 of Peyton Manning's 172 passing yards came on their opening drive. Other than the 34-yard pass to Emmanuel Sanders that just went through Malcolm Butler's hands, Manning couldn't move the ball.
But why even waste time with the soft coverage? Maybe to draw a degree of overconfidence from Manning? It was a bad decision.
Running the ball against the Broncos
1/10: 2 yards
1/15: 2 yards
3/13: 8 yards
2/10: 0 yards
1/10: -1 yards
1/10: 5 yards, rolled back by Bryan Stork penalty
1/1: 1 yard touchdown run
1/10: 0 yards
1/10: 2 yards
1/10: 0 yards
1/10: 4 yards
2/6: 1 yard
2/16: 3 yards
1/10: 4 yards
Total: 14 rushes, 31 yards, 1 touchdown
1st down: 10 rushes, 19 yards, 1 touchdown
Greater than 10 yards to go: 3 rushes, 13 yards
Running the ball was a total waste for the Patriots and an incredibly head-scratching decision by the coaching staff. Perhaps they were looking at the Bronco secondary that was enticing the Patriots to run by playing two-deep safeties; it doesn't matter: rushing the ball hasn't worked and definitely wasn't going to work with the Patriots personnel.
Maybe the coaching staff thought that establishing a rushing attack would help reduce the Broncos pass rush and could open up a play action. That doesn't work when a) the rushing attack isn't an actual threat; b) the Denver pass rush can sack Tom Brady before he can even fake the exchange with the running back.
Changing the entire offensive scheme for the AFCCG
The Patriots played tight end Michael Williams for just 16 snaps all game. Receivers Brandon LaFell and Keshawn Martin were just decoys to absorb some of the Broncos defensive backs. Martin was actually playing ahead of LaFell in the lineup.
New England liked the idea of Martin's horizontal ability against the Broncos secondary, while LaFell seems to play directly towards the strengths of Aqib Talib and Bradley Roby. But if the offensive line is getting obliterated all game, specifically around the edge, why wouldn't the coaches adjust to play Williams next to Marcus Cannon or Sebastian Vollmer to give Brady a split second longer in the pocket?
That was the Patriots MO all season; put a sixth blocker on the field and expect the receivers to get open within two seconds. Instead, the Patriots let the Denver defensive front crash Brady the entire game in favor of having Martin and LaFell...not really do much of anything at all.
Not taking the field goal with 6:01 left in the game
New England faced a 4th and 1 from the Denver 16 yard line and decided to attempt the conversion instead of kick the field goal and take the points. For those who wished the Patriots took the field goal, this is the only time the argument makes sense.
But here's the coaches reasoning: this was the Patriots first real drive deep into Denver territory all day. The touchdown was the result of a Broncos turnover and the Patriots started on the 22. Based on prior performance, the odds were against the Patriots driving deep into Denver territory for another time.
Here's another reason: the Broncos had just driven and kicked a field goal. The same logic applies; if we're saying that the Patriots were able to get into Denver territory on this drive, and that they should be able to do it again, then Denver was able to get deep into Patriots territory on their drive. Wouldn't there be a big risk that they could drive again and negate the entire value of the Patriots field goal?
If the Patriots took the field goal, it would be a major sign of faith in the defense to get the ball back after preventing a score (which they did). Going for it on 4th and 1 (which every team should do, anyways) was a sign of faith in the Patriots offense. The same faith that some people wished Bill Belichick had shown against the Jets in overtime.
Going for the field goal here makes sense when looking at the game in retrospect, and seeing how the Patriots were able to generate two more deep drives into Denver territory. But at that point in the game, the Broncos offense had just driven and the Patriots offense hadn't shown a consistent ability to move the ball.
More importantly, kicking a field goal would have still meant that the Patriots would have needed a touchdown to win. The coaches weren't sure if they'd be able to get back in that position to score a touchdown again.
Not taking the field goal with 2:25 left in the game
New England faced a 4th and 6 on the Denver 14 yard line and Brady was forced to heave a prayer into the end zone after no one was open. The Patriots were able to move the ball down the field and the decision to not kick the field goal on the prior drive was firmly placed under the microscope.
The Patriots had three time outs left with 2:25 on the clock. If they kicked the field goal, and then the Broncos ran three plays to drain the clock and failed to convert a first down, the Patriots could have gotten the ball back with two minutes left on the clock (which is exactly what happened) and needed a touchdown to win the game. However, if the Broncos converted one first down, then the game would be over.
The thought process remained the same: New England's offense hadn't been able to sustain a drive and find the end zone for the entire game. This marked the second straight drive where the Patriots stalled in the red zone. The coaches had to balance the idea of the defense making a stop and the offense finally punching in a score in the end zone, versus just trying to score from the 14 yard line.
Would have taking the field goal in either scenario won the game for the Patriots? Probably. But so would have avoiding the soft coverage early in the game. So would have avoiding wasting precious first downs with the rushing attack. So would have Tom Brady not throwing horrible interceptions. So would have Stephen Gostkowski not missing an early extra point. So would not playing a brand new offensive scheme on the second-biggest stage. Heck, so would have actually trying to win the game against the Dolphins.
It's easy to look back and point out all of the different times that an active decision by the coaches backfired in their faces. Some of their decisions still make sense when evaluating their circumstances, but the outcomes are still unpleasant.
The real fault with the coaches rest with the game-long schematic issues instead of the coin flip dilemmas. Going for the field goal makes sense in retrospect, but the coaches weren't confident in the offense at that point. That's defendable.
Not giving the offensive line extra help against Demarcus Ware and Von Miller? Playing soft coverage against a quarterback that can only throw against soft coverage? Setting up second and long situations with boneheaded rushing plays? These are the decisions that deserve more scrutiny. These are the decisions that can't be defended. These are the decisions that led to the Patriots demise.