In the end, it all came down to this: all that was missing for the New England Patriots against the Tennessee Titans was one successful offensive drive in the second half. Had they taken the lead either through a field goal or touchdown at one point, the whole complexity and result of the game might have changed. However, the Patriots failed to do it and ultimately saw their season end with a final score of 20-13 in Tennessee’s favor.
Saturday night can therefore be seen as a microcosm of the Patriots’ season: the defense played well enough to win, but the offense struggled to serve as a complementary piece. The unit definitely had its fair share of chances to do that, but came up short in the end. Whether it was three straight unsuccessful goal-line rushing attempts, a penalty to negate a long third down conversion, or untimely drops, the offensive execution was not up to par.
“This is a game where we came up a little bit short, had our opportunities. Obviously a close game but just couldn’t make enough plays tonight” said head coach Bill Belichick about the performance during his postgame press conference. “We gave up 14 points tonight but in this game, it was too much. We weren’t able to get the ball back at the end. There were a lot of good things, but just not quite good enough tonight and that’s what it was.”
The good things Belichick mentioned looked a lot like they did all year long, or at least for consistent stretches at one point. New England, for example, played a strong game against the pass and surrendered only 71 net yards through the air while eliminating Tennessee’s vaunted big-play attack and play-action game. Led by All-Pro cornerback Stephon Gilmore, the Patriots’ pass defense made life hard for quarterback Ryan Tannehill from start to finish.
Furthermore, the team ran the football well. While this was not always the case during the season in large parts due to some inconsistent blocking up front, the Patriots’ ground attack developed well over the second half of the season and with starting left tackle Isaiah Wynn back in the lineup after a temporary stint on injured reserve. Against the Titans, New England averaged 4.5 yards per carry on 22 attempts and also scored a touchdown.
The bad, on the other hand, also reared its head after doing so regularly during the regular season — and the running game is part of it as well. After all and as noted above, the Patriots were unable to punch the football into the end zone on three consecutive plays at the end of the second quarter. Tennessee’s goal-line stand was a turning point in the game, and it happened because New England felt to successfully win at the point of attack.
The offense also had its familiar issues moving the football through the air. While the easy narrative is to pin this on quarterback Tom Brady, he was far from the biggest problem on Saturday and showed that he can still play potentially winning football. Yes, his pick-six and 59.4 passer rating against the Titans do not look good but the numbers also do not do him any justice. Brady was just not able to do much with the hand that has been dealt.
The offensive supporting cast — especially at the receiving positions — simply failed to make enough plays to help the unit move the football down the field on a consistent basis. Even though the Patriots looked good in the first half, they failed to keep up and eventually collapsed in the second: New England had just two offensive plays in Tennessee’s half of the field during the last 30 minutes, and they came after an interception by Duron Harmon.
The Patriots’ run defense also has to be mentioned here — especially considering that it had bad games earlier during the season against the Buffalo Bills, Cleveland Browns and Baltimore Ravens — even though it appeared that much of it was by design: New England entered the game with a plan to try and eliminate the big-play potential of Tennessee’s offense. Investing in this area eventually led to the run defense being exposed.
That being said, while the Patriots were able to limit the Titans’ production on the ground in the second half, they still allowed them to burn considerable time off the clock in the fourth quarter and stay in control of the game’s tempo. When a stop was needed, the unit failed to deliver at least quickly enough. This inconsistency in combination with the offense’s inability to sustain a rhythm in the second half ultimately doomed New England.
“They made some key plays in critical situations, in the red area, on third down. All those plays were probably the difference in the game [...] We just didn’t make enough plays. We had some opportunities and just weren’t able to score enough points. 13 wasn’t enough,” said Belichick after the game — one that therefore ended in familiar fashion, with the defense playing mostly solid but the offense being unable to keep up.
The entire 2019 season went like that for the Patriots, and in the end it caught up with them.