The Patriots’ Problem

The New England Patriots are in the news. For an organization whose coach loathes most media interactions and stresses focus on the field, it's ironic that the team always seems to dominate headlines, even during the offseason. Just in the last month or so, we've been assured of conflict between that domineering head coach, Bill Belichick, and his owner (Robert Kraft) and franchise quarterback (Tom Brady), witnessed a dramatic Super Bowl defeat, scolded Josh McDaniels' shocking return after declining the Colts' head coaching job, and seen the Boston Herald print a retraction about Brady's contract demands.

The Patriots are coming off their fifth Super Bowl loss, a record for any team, breaking a tie with the Minnesota Vikings, Buffalo Bills, and Denver Broncos (4 each). Of course, the Patriots have also won five Super Bowls, all in the last 17 seasons. Belichick has coached more Super Bowl victories than anyone else, while Brady has won the most Super Bowl MVPs of any player. There's an easy way, though, that the Patriots might have been even more successful: if Bernard Pollard had chosen basketball or track instead of football.

The 2007 Patriots were the best team I've ever seen. They went 16-0 in the regular season and outscored opponents 589-274. That's the best regular-season record and the best point differential (+315) in NFL history. They broke the single-season scoring record, and led the league in total offense by more than 40 yards per game. They ranked top-five in fewest yards allowed and fewest points allowed. New England won each of its first eight games by at least 17 points. In the middle of the season, the Patriots scored at least 48 points four times in five games.

Brady was particularly impressive. He led the league in every major passing statistic, including yards, touchdowns, completion percentage, yards per attempt, and passer rating. His TD/INT differential of +42 remains the best in history, and he was a nearly unanimous choice as All-Pro quarterback and Most Valuable Player. New England lost in the Super Bowl, but entered the following season as favorites. Enter Bernard Pollard.

In Week 1, the Patriots faced the Kansas City Chiefs. Pollard, a third-year safety for Kansas City, hit Brady low, tearing the quarterback's ACL and MCL. The reigning MVP was out for the season, after only half a game and 11 pass attempts. The mighty Patriots finished 11-5, a far cry from their undefeated regular season the previous year, but still an excellent record. The 2008 AFC was historically competitive, though, and New England missed the playoffs on a tiebreaker. The '08 Pats are the only team in NFL history to win 11 games and miss the playoffs. Brady's backup, Matt Cassel, played well, but twice that year, the Patriots lost by 3. It seems conservative to guess that with a healthy Brady, the Pats might have gone 13-3 and earned the top seed in the AFC playoffs. They probably would have been Super Bowl favorites.

In 2009, a hit from Pollard — now with the Houston Texans — injured Wes Welker in the season finale. That season, the Patriots went 9-4 with Welker, but 1-3 without him, including the only time a Belichick/Brady team has lost in the first round of the playoffs. Moreover, the loss came against a Ravens team that had gone 3-5 on the road in the regular season, and it was Brady's first home loss in more than three years.

New England's offense was nowhere to be found in the wild card loss without Welker. Brady produced just 132 yards on 45 dropbacks, with a 49.1 passer rating and four turnovers. The Patriots went 3/12 on third down and scored only 14 points. They had averaged 31 points per game at home, including a 27-21 victory over Baltimore, during the regular season.

After leaving the Patriots alone in 2010 — Houston didn't play New England that year — Pollard signed with the Ravens in 2011. In the AFC Championship Game, Pollard knocked Rob Gronkowski out with a high ankle sprain. That was Gronk's breakout season. His 1,327 receiving yards and 18 touchdowns remain career-highs (by a lot), and in the previous playoff game, he had caught 10 passes for 145 yards and 3 TDs. In Super Bowl XLVI, a clearly hobbled Gronk was little more than a decoy. He had 8 catches, 101 yards, and a touchdown when the Pats and Giants met in the regular season, but without him, New England managed just 17 points and lost by 4.

Finally, in the next AFC Championship Game, Pollard KO-ed running back Stevan Ridley, and the ensuing fumble from an unconscious Ridley may have been the turning point. Ridley never returned to the game, but even more important, a strong New England drive — they'd gained first downs on consecutive plays, and Ridley gained eight before the knockout — turned into Baltimore's best starting field position of the game and led to the clinching touchdown.

That's the 2008, '09, '11, and '12 seasons that Pollard torpedo-ed for New England. In '08, Pollard's tackle — which wasn't malicious but did lead to a rule change prohibiting low hits on passers — robbed the Patriots of Brady and led to their only non-playoff season of the last 15 years. The next year, an injury delivered by Pollard prevented Welker from playing in New England's wild card loss, its only such defeat under Belichick, and Brady's first home loss in more than three years. In 2011, Gronkowski's ankle injury made him a non-factor in a 4-point Super Bowl loss to a team he had lit up earlier in the season (just like he lit up everyone else). Finally, a hit from Pollard knocked out Ridley — whose 1,263 rushing yards are the most by any Patriot since Corey Dillon in '04 — and led to a touchdown that sent Baltimore to Super Bowl XLVII instead of the Patriots.

In any of those seasons, the hits by Pollard might have been the difference between a title win for the Patriots and a season that fell a little bit short. Pollard has done more to hurt the Patriots than Brandon Graham, Nick Foles, Desmond Howard, Dan Marino, or anyone else. The only players who even really have an argument are the Mannings, Eli and Peyton. Eli's Giants beat the Patriots in two Super Bowls, with Manning named the MVP of both games. Peyton's teams went 3-1 against the Patriots in AFC Championship Games, knocking them off the doorstep of three Super Bowls. Those losses, and the ones inflicted by Pollard, hurt more than any headline or media drama.

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