By Ryan Wilson | CBSSports.com
‘Are the Patriots’ injuries even too much for Tom Brady to overcome?’
We’ve been on the Patriots bandwagon since the preseason, picking them to face theSeahawks in the Super Bowl. And right up till Sunday, we felt pretty good about that. But this time around, Tom Brady, in all his do-goodin’ handsome magnificence can’t singlehandedly will this team to victory, even if history suggests otherwise.
Brady has been the face of the franchise for more than a decade, but he’s always gotten help; whether from his receivers or running backs, or a ball-hawking defense. This season, for any number of reasons, New England sorely lacks both.
On Sunday, all the Patriots had to do was beat the Dolphins. Manage that and they would have the inside track to the No. 1 seed in the AFC, homefield advantage throughout the playoffs, and any rematches with Peyton Manning and the Broncos would take place in Foxborough and not Denver.
Instead, like four other division leaders in Week 15, New England lost. And in the process, not only fell out of the conversation for the top seed, but could have slipped to third in the conference if the Bengals hadn’t come up short against the five-win Steelers on Sunday night.
In a normal year, a late-season setback wouldn’t mean much. But for these Patriots, 2013 has been anything but normal. The team came into the season without its five top receivers from a season ago, which meant Brady spent the first two months trying to get on the same page as rookie wideouts Kenbrell Thompkins and Aaron Dobson.
Despite the sputtering passing game, New England was still 5-1 when tight end Rob Gronkowski made his debut in Week 7, and in the subsequent weeks Brady and the Pats started to look a lot like … well, Brady and the Pats.
But the defense had lost two of its best players for the season in nose tackle Vince Wilforkand linebacker Jerod Mayo, and opponents were taking advantage of their absence. Heading into Week 15, the Pats’ defense ranked 18th overall, according to Football Outsiders, 14th against the pass and 28th against the run.
Brady has some history with putting the team on his shoulders but this time is different. Because last week, Gronkowski joined Wilfork and Mayo on injured reserve, meaning that New England’s offense was again without a big downfield playmaker. Yes, Julian Edelmanand Danny Amendola are good players, but they’re best in complementary roles, not as primary targets.
“Our margin of error is very slim,” Brady said Monday morning during his weekly appearance on WEEI. “We can’t make any mistakes or give them any opportunities. If we have plays that are there to be made, then I’ve got to throw it and hit it. We’ve got to come up with them.
“We’re not winning by 30 points. Every game comes down to the end. We’ve just got to do a better job when we have opportunities as a team in all three phases to make plays to help us secure wins.”
Also not helping: For the second straight week, left tackle Nate Solder had to leave the game with a head injury. This comes after right tackle Sebastian Vollmer landed on injured reserve with a leg season earlier this season. Solder’s injury forced All Pro guard Logan Mankins to left tackle Sunday, which only added to the upheaval, a recurring theme this season.
And while we like to cling to the old bromide about the Patriots being fine as long as they have Belichick and Brady, this team has been so decimated by injuries that not even a future Hall of Fame coach and quarterback can consistently make up the difference.
We say that fully understanding that despite the latest setback, New England is still 10-4, currently the AFC’s No. 2 team, and will again be headed to the playoffs for the 11th time in Brady’s career. But unlike previous teams that featured Randy Moss, Wes Welker, Aaron Hernandez, and Gronkowski, this group won’t scare a lot of opponents. We saw that Sunday with the Dolphins, we wouldn’t be surprised to see it in Week 16 against the Ravens, and again when the Pats get to the postseason.
The narrative earlier this season was that Brady was finally showing his age and the substandard play proved that; the reality is that Brady remains one of the NFL’s best quarterbacks but he just can’t do it alone.
We’ve seen this before, back in 2006, when the Patriots shipped Deion Branch to the Seahawks and Brady was stuck throwing to the likes of Reche Caldwell and Jabar Gaffney. Those Patriots still managed 12 wins and made it to the AFC Championship Game. But the biggest difference between the ’06 team and the ’13 version: Fewer injuries to key players and a seventh-ranked defense.
This time around, Brady’s on his own. And his comments after the Dolphins loss could end up applying to the season at large.
“We had plenty of chances,” Brady said. “We made some good plays. We made a lot of s—– plays.”