In the end, second-guessing the Patriots' decisions turned out to be valid criticism

Jan 4, 2020; Foxborough, Massachusetts, USA; New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) talks with his teammates on the sideline during the second half of a game against the Tennessee Titans at Gillette Stadium. Winslow Townson/USA TODAY Sports

By Ty Anderson,

If you ask me point blank, I'll tell you: Saturday's game between the New England Patriots and Tennessee Titans should not have happened. You should've had a stress-free, relaxing Saturday, much like you have for the last nine wild card weekends. You were supposed to enjoy watching Patrick Mahomes sweat out a gritty game against the Titans. You got to laugh at the Bills regardless, yeah, but it's really the former that interested you.

I mean, this all seemed like a mere formality entering a Week 17 date with the Miami Dolphins, too.

Instead, you had to commit yourself to a three-hour stomachache only to watch the Patriots' season come to a crashing end thanks to Julian Edelman's red gloves letting you down for the first time ever and Ryan effin' Tannehill coming through on what I can only assume was the first big third-down conversion of his life. Pop Warner, college, recreationally with friends and family, you name it. Oh, and Mike Vrabel got to beat Bill Belichick using one of his own tricks to bleed almost two minutes off the clock and with the Patriots in need of a go-ahead score in the fourth quarter.

A fun time, this was not.

And we're left to come back to second-guessing things that really shouldn't have mattered.

Let's be clear about one thing: Patriots coach Bill Belichick has forgotten more football than you and I could ever know. Nobody can dispute this. The mere idea that we have a better read on a situation than Belichick is often met with deserved disgust. But here we are, once again circling back to what could've been.

And it's hard to shut the second-guessers down with the heat that's made this six-state region the envy of the nation -- and driven the hot takers to straight-up delusion -- this time around.

Head coach Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots exits the field after the game between the New England Patriots and the Pittsburgh Steelers at Gillette Stadium on September 08, 2019 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
Head coach Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots exits the field after the game between the New England Patriots and the Pittsburgh Steelers at Gillette Stadium on September 08, 2019 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

When the Dolphins' Matt Haack was punting the ball to the Patriots with just under two minutes remaining in the second quarter of their Week 17 meeting, the Patriots had more than enough time to call a timeout and give themselves a chance to drive down the field for a double-score. They instead let Miami bleed the clock, tried two runs up the gut, and went into the half tied 10-10. They ultimately lost the game by three, and dropped into the No. 3 seed.

Nothing about it seemed to make any sense, really, especially within that moment and with momentum seemingly on New England's side after back-to-back scoring drives and a massive defensive stop. If this happens almost any other year, it means nothing as the Patriots storm down the field and put the game out of reach.

But that eventual loss to 'Fitzmagic' opened the door to second-guessing (neither Belichick nor Tom Brady had real -- or acceptable, at the very least -- explanations for the decision not to go for points), and put the Pats in a legitimately season-changing spot. It's completely legit to criticize this decision like you did with the goofy dropkick against the Eagles in 2015, and same for the puke-inducing Steven Jackson game.

Like those moves did back then, the failure to be...well, the Patriots... absolutely changed their season.

There's no way around it.

Instead of hosting a divisional round game, the Patriots fell into a meeting with a white-hot quarterback and a team they were uncomfortably familiar with from a 2018 meeting and week of training camp and joint practices together. This Patriots team desperately needed everything about a bye, too; the rest, the refresh and recharge, and the wackiness of wild card weekend that could've titled the playoff picture in their favor.

But most of all, having to play on wild card weekend also opened the door to more second-guessing that -- yet again -- was impossible to dismiss with any pregame hype video.

The decision to give Elandon Roberts his first carry of the season on 3rd-and-1 went nowhere, and stalled what could've been a backbreaking drive, as the Patriots scored a touchdown on their previous drive and immediately forced the Titans into a three-and-out. Getting points would've put the Patriots up by at least three, and begin to turn the screws on the Titans with Tannehill having to make some plays to beat you instead of the Derrick Henry slow-death.

But the Titans saw the Roberts carry coming the whole way (more on that in a second), and it was worth a second guess, as it seemed as if the Patriots' Rex Burkhead was beginning to heat up. The Patriots were also getting worthwhile contributions out of James White, making the decision to go the most unnatural runner in your backfield when in need of just a single yard all the more puzzling. It felt like unnecessarily overthinking things.

Forced to punt, the Patriots were given another chance to put some points on the board after another three-and-out, and were just three feet away from paydirt after quick completions to N'Keal Harry and Burkhead put 'em on the 1-yard line. The Patriots then went to three obvious run plays, and were stuffed each time, going to Burkhead for one and Sony Michel for the other two before Nick Folk kicked a 21-yard field goal. It wasn't hard to see what the Patriots were doing, too, as Brady had to burn through two timeouts when the Titans were hip to their game.

You also knew exactly what the Patriots were doing whenever Marshall Newhouse and/or Roberts reported in as eligible, which he did on two of these tries on the goal line. There was zero creativity in this situation. And they didn't put the ball in the hands of Brady, the most accomplished quarterback in league history and one of the absolute best when it comes to those goal line quarterback sneaks, for at least one of these tries. You're right to second-guess that.

These struggles also highlighted the organization's struggles to replace Rob Gronkowski. Not that you were ever going to truly replace one of the greatest tight ends in history (and he also kinda, totally boned you with his decision to drag out the retirement process), but the red zone was a season-long migraine. It never got better or got a needed boost.

Then came the obvious struggles at wideout.

The position with the most turnover throughout the year, there's no shortage of second-guessing with this one; signing and releasing Antonio Brown, trading Demaryius Thomas for nothing only to see Jakobi Meyers fall out frame, trading for Mohamed Sanu, and banking on (and eventually trading the eventually suspended) Josh Gordon. There's a good chance you've already vented about all of that to everybody you know. But it was especially glaring on Saturday.

Targeted 21 times, the New England wideout group came through with just seven catches. A 33 percent catch rate. Edelman led the way in both catches (three) and yards (30), while Harry finished second with two catches and 21 yards. Phillip Dorsett, who at one point had a ridiculous catch streak, finished his year with one catch for six yards, and caught just four of his final 16 targets of the season, totaling 71 yards (50 of those 71 yards came on one catch).

The overall talent of this group was always questioned -- it really felt you were banking on Edelman, battling through knee and shoulder ailments, to carry this group's production every night -- and on Saturday it was answered. They were not good enough to make up for the shortcomings of the rest of the offensive weapons. This group often struggled to get separation, they dropped too many gotta-have-it passes, and they rarely elevated their game like the Chris Hogans and Danny Amendolas did when the season (and dynasty) were on the lines in recent seasons.

Just like many feared.

In the end, second-guessing seemed to be right. And depending on how this offseason shakes out, we may never hear the end of it.

Thanks to the game that never should have happened at all.

Ty Anderson is a writer and columnist for Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Yell at him on Twitter: @_TyAnderson.