Meet the new loss. Same as the old loss.
That's the story of the 2012 postseason for the New England Patriots.
Jim Harbaugh and the San Francisco 49ers walked into Atlanta and beat the Falcons 28-24 Sunday afternoon in the NFC title game. Minutes later John Harbaugh and the Baltimore Ravens walked into New England and embarrassed the Patriots 28-13 Sunday night in the AFC title game.
The Brothers Harbaughmazov will face each other on opposite sidelines in the Super Bowl, a familial first in NFL history.
You may hear this story a few times in the next two weeks: It’s the Harbaughs’ world. You’re just living in it.
But before two weeks of H2hype, it's time to put the New England mystique out of its misery, most likely for the final time.
John Harbaugh and the Ravens did more than just beat the Patriots in the night cap.
They exposed for the final time a failed strategy in New England that has yielded plenty of great stats, records and regular-season results but that ultimately failed in the end, each loss a mirror image of the other.
The Patriots must now come to grips with a legacy of What Might Have Been for a dynastic team that has consistently dominated in the regular season but consistently come up small when it mattered most late in the season.
Since 2007 New England has fielded four of the 12 greatest offenses in the history of football, and failed each time at the end – and failed each time at the end largely because of offenses that simply did not look the same or up to the task when it counted most.
The Patriots led the NFL by a wide margin with 557 points scored in 2012, an average of 34.8 PPG. They scored just 13 against the Ravens – a fairly ordinary Ravens defense – while making a series of uncharacteristic plays and decisions:
- Tom Brady mismanaged the clock at the end of the first half, costing the team a shot at a touchdown
- Wes Welker dropped an easy first down in the second half, costing the team a drive
- The game plan abandoned the run-pass balance that had served the team so well, the Patriots eschewing the run even when they appeared to control the game in the first half. Brady passed the ball more than twice has many times (54) as he handed it off (26).
- New England blew a season’s worth of scoring opportunities, six times putting the ball inside the Baltimore 25
- Brady looked old inaccurate and inefficient at the end, averaging just 5.9 YPA and completing just 53.7 percent of his passes.
This game had its own historic signature, too, much like other losses by seemingly dominant New England teams: the Patriots were 67-0 at home in the Brady Era when leading at halftime. Now they’re 67-1.
Football is not so simple as “defense wins championships.” In reality, balance wins championships. And that’s something that the Patriots have not had in years.
The champions of 2001, 2003 and 2004 were routinely criticized for playing a boring brand of football. But those clubs, solid on all sides of the ball, and certainly much better defensively than the recent vintage Patriots, rode that boring brand of football all the way to three Super Bowl titles.
The recent vintage Patriots, the teams that wowed everyone with their offensive fireworks in the regular season, have simply petered out in the playoffs.
- The 2007 Patriots scored 36.8 PPG, most in modern NFL history, and went 16-0. They scored 14 in a Super Bowl loss to the Giants.
- The 2010 Patriots scored 32.4 PPG, No. 10 in modern history. They scored 21 in a divisional-round loss to the Jets.
- The 2011 Patriots scored 32.1 PPG, No. 12 in modern history. They scored 17 in a Super Bowl loss to the Giants.
- The 2012 Patriots scored 34.8 PPG, No. 3 in modern history. They scored 13 in an AFC title game loss to the Ravens.
Put another way: the 2007, 2010, 2011 and 2012 Patriots averaged 34.0 PPG over the course of four brilliant regular seasons. They scored 16.3, less than half, in their playoff losses.
The reality is that the Patriots made a strategic decision around the end of the 2006 season to become a team that was built around its quarterback and that sacrificed so many of the little things the team did well in its Super Bowl-winning years. Namely, play pass defense.
The strategy has given the New England offense and Brady a mountain of mind-blowing offensive statistics, some of which are sure to stand the test of time. But that’s all it’s given the Patriots.
Brady, meanwhile, has simply disappeared in these games, his combined performance in those four losses:
- 114 of 188, 60.6%, 1,161 yards, 6.2 YPA, 6 TD, 4 INT, 80.1 rating
By any measure, the performances in those losses are far below his regular-season standards. And those losses are only after the historic seasons of 2007, 2010, 2011 and 2012. They don’t include New England’s 33-14 loss to the Ravens in the 2009 postseason.
Brady was also clearly outclassed by Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco (21 of 36, 240, 3 TD 0 INT), who looked younger, stronger, faster, more accurate and more Super Bowl-ready and the Patriots passer. Flacco has consistently stepped up his game in the posteason, making deep runs each year, and has played the most impressive ball of his career here in the 2012 postseason.
The New England organization has crossed some incredible milestones. It’s been one of the most amazing runs in the history of football. But instead of talking about an untouchable dynasty, one that had a legit shot to win six or seven Super Bowls over the past decade plus, we’re talking about a strategic decision that has produced plenty of gaudy stats – and zero championships.
In two weeks, the Harbaugh family alone will have won more Super Bowls than New England and all its gaudy stats have produced over the past eight seasons.
Get used to hearing about it. It's the Harbaugh's world ... while New England's time has come and gone.