We’ve witnessed a Christmas miracle this year. We’ve watched Bill Belichick’s powerful Patriots morph into Ron Erhardt’s pathetic Patriots right before our very eyes.
Erhardt, you might remember, coached the most infuriating team in franchise history: the 2-14 Patriots of 1981. It was a team that should have been much better than its record indicated: The 1981 Patriots were middle-of-the-road in most statistical indicators, scoring 322 points that year while surrendering 370 points.
But the 1981 Patriots were the Da Vinci of defeat, turning excruciating losses into a majestic art form. They were always competitive but managed to find creative ways to lose week after week.
•They surrendered an overtime touchdown to Lynn Swann in a 27-21 loss to Pittsburgh, a star-studded but struggling team just two years removed from its fourth Super Bowl victory.
•They lost by two points to a Redskins team that would win the Super Bowl the following year.
•They scored 10 fourth-quarter points to forge a tie with the eventual division-champ Dolphins, only to lose in overtime yet again.
•They gave up a long touchdown to the playoff-bound Bills to blow a 17-13 lead late in the fourth quarter.
•They surrendered a pair of fourth-quarter touchdowns to the Cardinals to drop another very winnable game.
The signature performances of the 1981 Patriots, though, were a pair of close losses to a truly awful Baltimore Colts team that surrendered a record 533 points in 1981. Baltimore edged the Patriots by one point in the first game of the year. The Colts lost their next 14 games, most of them badly, but then slipped past the Patriots again, this time by two points, in the season finale.
The 1981 Patriots failed miserably at something we now call “situational football.” It’s a fancy phrase for making the clutch plays that win games.
It’s a phrase we didn’t really use back in the Erhardt era but that we had pounded into our heads from 2001 to 2004, as the Patriots turned a mastery of the craft of situational football into three Super Bowl titles.
When a play needed to be made earlier this decade, you knew that New England would come through whether on offense, defense or special teams.
The Patriots of the past four weeks suddenly feel more like the 2-14 Patriots of 1981 than the dynastic squad of the 21st century, failing time and again at so-called situational football.
Here’s a look at critical situations in each of New England’s last three losses — situations that, if executed properly, easily could have turned defeat into victory.
Week 10: Indianapolis 35, New England 34
How important is situational football? A crushing last-second loss to the archrival Colts might have gone in the record books as a blowout New England victory over the unbeaten Colts had the Patriots executed each of these five situations. But that’s asking a lot — Success in just one of these situations probably would have led to a win.
The situation: New England has a third-and-goal at the Indy 4. The score is tied 7-7 early in the second quarter.
The result: Tom Brady drops back to pass and is sacked for a 9-yard loss. The Patriots settle for a short field goal instead of a touchdown — a critical four-point swing in a one-point loss.
The situation: The Patriots sport a 24-14 halftime lead and receive to open the third quarter. They easily march into Indy territory and have a first-and-10 at the 33.
The result: Brady throws deep to Randy Moss. The ball is picked off by Antoine Bethea in the end zone. A second touchdown opportunity goes to waste.
The situation: New England has a second-and-goal at the Indy 2, still leading 24-14.
The result: Laurence Maroney runs off right tackle and fumbles into the end zone. Indy recovers and takes over at its own 20. Instead of the commanding 42-14 lead over unbeaten Indy the Patriots might have enjoyed by executing these three situations, they cling to a 10-point advantage and hand momentum to the Colts.
The Situation: New England has a fourth-and-2 at its own 28, leading 34-28 with 2:08 to play.
The result: Brady throws to Kevin Faulk, who catches the ball but cut his route six inches too short. He gets hammered short of the first down and the Colts take over at their own 29.
The situation: The Colts have the ball at the New England 29 with two minutes to play and trailing 34-28
The result: The Colts gash the Patriots for 29 yards and a touchdown on just four plays. The Colts, who had not led until the final seconds, win 35-34.
That’s five critical situations for New England, and five critical failures when success in any one would have meant victory.
Week 12: New Orleans 38, New England 17
A game that went in the record books as a resounding Saints victory could have turned the other way if the Patriots had taken advantage of any or all of these four “situation football” opportunities.
The situation: New England leads 7-3 in the first quarter when Wes Welker returns a punt 41 yards to the New Orleans 46, putting the Patriots in prime position to pad their early lead.
The result: Brady throws a bad pass on New England’s very next play that’s picked off by Saints retread Mike McKenzie, making his first appearance of the year. The Saints quickly drive in for the touchdown and a 10-7 lead that they never relinquished.
The situation: The Patriots take over at their own 20 with 1:50 to play in the first half, trailing 24-10. They quickly march into New Orleans territory.
The result: The drive stalls at the 32 after three straight Brady incomplete passes. Stephen Gostkowski misses a 50-yard field goal.
The situation: The Patriots march 80 yards for a touchdown on the first drive of the third quarter to cut the Saints lead to 24-17. They simply need to make a stand on defense.
The result: Drew Brees hits Marques Colston for 68 yards on the very next offensive snap and the Saints take a 31-17 lead two plays later.
The situation: The Patriots take over at their own 18 trailing by two touchdowns but with 24 minutes still to play. They march all the way to the New Orleans 10, where they face a fourth-and-4.
The result: Brady’s pass to Randy Moss falls incomplete. The Patriots do not cross midfield again until reaching the New Orleans 48 with seconds left to play in garbage time.
Those are four situations that could have changed the complexion of, arguably, the biggest game of 2009. The Patriots failed in all four.
Week 13: Miami 22, New England 21
This might have been the worst day of situational football the Patriots have produced since the Erhardt era – time and again they had chances to make plays that would have meant victory. Time and again they failed badly.
The Situation: The Patriots lead 14-7 in the second quarter and face a fourth-and-1 at the Miami 6.
The result: Sammy Morris is stopped for no gain. The Patriots walk away with zero points instead of three or seven — a critical swing in a one-point loss.
The situation: The Dolphins take over at their own 6, trailing 14-7 with just 1:55 to play in the first half.
The result: Inexperienced Miami quarterback Chad Henne expertly leads the Dolphins downfield against the helpless New England defense, leading to a field goal with one second to play in the half — a critical drive in a one-point win.
The situation: Miami faces fourth-and-1 at the New England 9, trailing 21-13 in the third quarter.
The result: Miami coach Tony Sparano eschews the easy field goal and calls a run by Lousaka Polite — a guy who has attempted just 58 rushes in a six-year NFL career. Polite converts, leading to a Miami touchdown that narrows the New England lead to 21-19.
The situation: The Patriots still lead 21-19 and face a fourth-and-3 at the Miami 39.
The result: The Patriots appear to convert the fourth down with a 13-yard Brady-to-Welker pass that moves the ball into field goal range. But Sam Aiken is called for a rare offensive pass interference penalty and the Patriots are forced to punt.
The situation: The Patriots again march deep into Miami territory early in the fourth quarter, still clinging to a 21-19 lead, with a second-and-goal at the 5.
The result: For the second time in three weeks, Brady throws a critical pick in the end zone, thwarting what would have been a game-sealing touchdown.
The situation: The Dolphins take over at their own 26-yard line late in the fourth quarter, needing to produce their second clutch drive of the game.
The result: Henne comes through once again against the helpless New England defense, setting up Dan Carpenter’s go-ahead field goal with 1:07 to play. It’s Miami’s first lead of the day.
The situation: The Patriots take over at their own 22 with 1:02 to play, needing just 48 yards of offense to set up a good shot at a game-winning field goal.
The result: Brady, under pressure, throws a horrible, Brett Favre-esque pass in to the hands of Miami linebacker Channing Crowder.
Those are eight situations — eight opportunities the Patriots had to ensure victory over the Dolphins. They needed to succeed in just one of these opportunities. They failed in all eight.
There’s good and bad behind the situational failures. The good news is that, if you take a step back, the Patriots are only a play here and a play there away from being a leading contender right now. If they make those plays in the postseason, they could still make some noise.
The bad news, though, is the frequency with which Brady’s name appears on the list above — the sacks, the consecutive incompletions, the aborted drives and the critical end zone picks that stand in such sharp contrast to the clutch plays we’ve known him to make game after game, year after year.
The bottom line, either way, is that the situationally proficient Patriots of 2004 would be basking in the glow of a 9-3 of 10-2 season right now. They’d be celebrating their dominating victory over the unbeaten Colts, a game that set up the Patriots as the team to beat in the AFC. They’d be fresh off another win over the Dolphins. They might have even bested the mighty Saints in New Orleans.
Instead, we’re wondering how the powerful Patriots of the recent past turned into the pathetic Patriots of so long ago. We’re wondering if they can turn it around in time to salvage the 2009 season. We’re wondering they can turn it around in time to salvage the former dynasty that’s growing ever-distant in the rearview mirror.