The Super Bowl featured two teams that were better than the Patriots this year, two teams that beat the Patriots during the regular season and one -- the eventual Super Bowl champion Ravens -- that handed New England its lunch in the AFC championship game.
One of the most glaring shortcomings of the Patriots was highlighted by the downfield fireworks that took place in Baltimore’s 34-31 win over San Francisco on Sunday night, a game that turned into a shootout with 49ers signal-caller Colin Kaepernick and Ravens quarterback (and Super Bowl MVP) Joe Flacco trading haymakers deep down the field.
That a quarterback like Flacco -- leaning heavily on veteran Anquan Boldin -- led his team to a title is hardly a surprise. He’s very much in the mold of the quarterbacks who have hoisted the Lombardi in recent years. Since Tom Brady and the Patriots last won the Super Bowl in 2005, the last quarterbacks standing all have been heavily reliant on working down the field with their wide receiving corps: Ben Roethlisberger (twice), Peyton Manning, Eli Manning (twice), Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers.
Now, at a time when the Patriots face the need to get better this offseason, they must confront what they must do in order to close the gap on the two teams that were in New Orleans. New England must determine whether or not it can compete with teams like San Francisco and Baltimore without a dynamic, home run-hitting offense predicated not just on Tom Brady’s ability to sync up with his receivers on short and intermediate passing routes, but also on the ability to go deep.
When matching up the offenses, there are a lot of things that both the Patriots and Ravens do well. They both have fairly sturdy and consistent running games, a usually reliable offensive line and good pass-catchers. New England probably gets an edge when it comes to the short and intermediate routes when the tight ends and Wes Welker are healthy. But when it comes to the deep ball, Baltimore is better.
“It’s a very explosive team with a lot of big plays,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said of the Ravens in the days before the AFC title game. “They can kill you on the deep balls. … They do a real good job on the deep balls -- really good.”
Over the course of the regular season, the Ravens were able to become one of the better deep-strike teams in the league, finishing with 62 pass plays of 20 yards or more (fifth in the league) and 12 pass plays of 40 yards or more (fourth in the league). Per Pro Football Focus, Flacco targeted a receiver 20 yards or more downfield on 17.3 percent of his attempts this season, tops in the league, and didn’t throw a single pick on those pass attempts. (By way of comparison, Brady was sixth in the league at 13.2 percent, and had three picks in similar situations.)
Flacco and the Ravens were able to take that to the next level in the postseason -- in four playoff games, they lead the league with 19 pass plays of 20 yards or more and six pass plays of 40 yards or more. Some of the bigger numbers are due to the fact that the Ravens ended up playing more playoff games than any other team, but the deep ball clearly was a major option in the Baltimore offense all season long, and the Ravens did a good job making it work in the Super Bowl. On Sunday against the Niners, Flacco was able to connect on four pass plays of 20 yards or more (which twice included connections of 30 yards) and one of 40 yards or more (which ended up going for 56 yards).
Of Baltimore’s regular receivers -- that is, players who caught 30 passes or more -- three averaged at least 13.5 yard per catch over the course of the regular season. All three of those receivers were legitimate downfield threats in Torrey Smith (17.4 yards per catch), Boldin (14.2) and Jacoby Jones (13.5). The Patriots had five guys who caught at least 30 passes, but only one of them averaged more than 13.5 yards per catch -- Rob Gronkowski, who was at 14.4. He was hurt for a sizable portion of the season, but even healthy Gronkowski is not a legitimate threat to beat his man deep.
When stacked against the Ravens, the Patriots actually are pretty competitive when it comes to receiving yards, yards per catch and big passing plays. But the Patriots traditionally have gained more of their yards after the catch (particularly Wes Welker and Gronkowski, who have been at the top or near the top of the league in YAC consistently the last few seasons), while the Ravens have seen more deep balls through the air. This season, the Patriots got 2,029 via YAC, while Baltimore had 1,612 YAC. (Individually, Baltimore had just one pass-catcher in the top 50 during the regular season when it came to YAC -- Ray Rice, who was 10th overall at 452 yards. Meanwhile, New England had three players in the top 60, including the league-leading Welker, who was at 619 during the regular season.)
Look, this is not to suggest that the Patriots aren’t one of the league’s premier offenses. But in the wake of this season -- particularly, the performance of the Ravens passing game in the regular season and playoffs -- it’s worth revisiting what an opposing scout told me about New England’s offseason priority list, and specifically the need at receiver: “The Patriots need to add a vertical speed player with some size to the offense. Rob Gronkowski stretches the seams, and they are efficient running the ball, as well as with their horizontal passing attack. People try to get hands on their hands on wide receivers and bracket inside options. If Gronk and Hernandez are on the field at the same time, they put stress on the defense -- but not as much vertically. The Patriots do have fast wide receivers, but they are small, and require Brady to be more accurate on his deeper throws. And because of their size, they aren’t consistent vertical threats. What they need is a wide receiver who is a vertical threat but is also big enough to be physical in press coverage.”
That brings us to Boldin. The 32-year-old could be a salary cap casualty this offseason -- he’s scheduled to make $6 million in 2013, and the Ravens are facing some serious cap questions, including Joe Flacco and Ed Reed. It would appear that the 6-foot-1, 223-pounder could be the sort of big, physical threat that the scout was talking about. His game was on full display Sunday night against the Niners, as he came away with six catches for 104 yards and a touchdown. The Patriots reportedly kicked the tires on Boldin in 2010 before he was dealt from the Cardinals to the Ravens. While he certainly wouldn’t make the New England receiving corps any younger, he would bring a physical presence and an occasional deep threat that the Patriots offense lacked in 2012.
Regardless, one of the things Patriots fans should take comfort in is the fact that there are a lot of commonalities when it comes to their franchise and the way the Super Bowl champions do business. Belichick and Baltimore general manager Ozzie Newsome follow many of the same tenets when it comes to team-building, including taking a big picture approach when it comes to constructing a team. (It’s no surprise -- Newsome learned his front-office style while working with Belichick in Cleveland.) And Newsome has acknowledged that he learned a lot from Belichick and borrowed liberally from his style when it comes to personnel. In this case, it might be wise for Belichick to take a page from Newsome’s book and go looking for a pass-catcher like one of the guys lined up in a purple and white jersey Sunday night. After all, the Ravens’ ability to find just such a player positioned Baltimore to do something Belichick and the Patriots have been unable to do for eight years -- pose with the Lombardi while under a hail of confetti.