Originally posted on NESN.com  |  Last updated 1/22/13
FOXBORO, Mass. — The Patriots’ planned trip to New Orleans for the Super Bowl came down in a “crash landing,” as Bill Belichick put it, on Sunday night — a reality that seems to have become a trend in New England in recent years. Since winning three Super Bowls in four seasons at the start of the Belichick and Tom Brady era in Foxboro, the Patriots haven’t found quite the same success. Over the past six seasons, the Patriots have made five playoff appearances, gone to three AFC Championship Games and lost a pair of Super Bowls. That track record would be welcomed by almost any franchise around the NFL, but with the heightened expectations in New England anything less than first just isn’t good enough anymore. Sunday’s loss to the Ravens just tacks another subpar finish onto a string of promising but disappointing seasons in New England. There are plenty of facets of the Patriots’ organization that deserve blame for the string of underachievements, but the most glaring problem is the Patriots’ overreliance on Brady. When the Patriots won their three Super Bowl titles, Brady served as a mere piece of the championship puzzle. During those seasons (2001, 2003 and 2004), the Patriots had a nice balance of run and pass with running backs Corey Dillon and Antowain Smith carrying much of the load. Brady wasn’t being relied on as the sole playmaker on offense, and he had a reputable defense to back him up. Now, he’s become the focal point of the Patriots’ offense. The offensive system begins and ends with his right arm, which at 35 years old may not be as ideal as it once seemed. The emergence of a running game in 2012 behind the churning legs of Stevan Ridley offered some hope, but the problems on defense persist. Brady was most successful when his role was as more of a game manager in the postseason. That’s not to say he was kept on a tight leash like Trent Dilfer in 2000, or even Matt Hasselbeck in 2006, but he the offense wasn’t expected to run strictly through him like it has over the past eight seasons. Brady’s thrown the ball over 600 times in each of the past two regular seasons — the first and only two times in his career — and even with a running game slung it out there a career-high 637 times in 2012. That trend extends over to the postseason as well. During his first three postseason appearances, which all ended in Super Bowl triumphs, Brady averaged about 34 passes per game. Since then, Brady’s thrown an average of 39 passes in 15 postseason games, including an average of 42 times over seven games in the past four postseasons. Looking at the stark contrast in numbers, it’s no wonder that Brady went from a 10-0 start in his postseason career to just a 7-7 record since. Not to say that Brady is the problem, by any means, rather that his overuse might be more of a weakness than an advantage for the Patriots. Brady is still the best player on the Patriots, and arguably the best quarterback in the NFL. But if Belichick and New England hope to reclaim their status as Super Bowl champions anytime soon, they’ll need to stop relying on No. 12 so much and strike more of an offensive balance. Have a question for Luke Hughes? Send it to him via Twitter at @LukeFHughes (https://twitter.com/LukeFHughes) or send it here (http://www.nesn.com/luke-hughes-bio.html). Pick Six The six biggest Trendsetters of the past week in the NFL Joe Flacco, QB, Baltimore Ravens: Up – People just continue to doubt Flacco, but he continues to block out the noise and make winning plays anyway. Flacco outplayed Tom Brady yet again in this year’s AFC Championship Game and is finally ready to win the Super Bowl. Jack Harbaugh: Up – The father of both Jim and John Harbaugh must be awfully proud of his boys as they prepare to square off in the Super Bowl next weekend. He may have even pounded down a few beers in celebration. Titus Young, WR, Detroit Lions: Down – He’s young, and it shows. The 23-year-old wide receiver was placed on injured reserved for continued antics detrimental to the team, and now he’s threatening to retire if the Lions don’t give him the ball more. Uh, does he realize that he’s sharing a field with Calvin Johnson? Julio Jones, WR, Atlanta Falcons: Up – The Falcons were sent packing from the playoffs after a heroic comeback by Colin Kapernick and the 49ers, but Jones did his best to get Atlanta to the Super Bowl. He caught 11 passes for 182 yards — both Falcons postseason records — and justified Thomas Dimitroff selling the 2011 draft for him. Derrick Martin, DB, New England Patriots: Down — Martin was inactive for the Patriots’ AFC Championship loss on Sunday, bringing his streak of consecutive Super Bowl titles to a close at two. Just piling onto the pain, too, his house got robbed over the weekend. Now, that’s some bad luck. Tony Gonzalez, TE, Atlanta Falcons: Up – If this truly is Gonzo’s last season in an NFL uniform, then he went out as close to on top as possible. Gonzalez caught eight passes, including a touchdown, in the Falcons’ NFC Championship Game loss, but did all he could to get Atlanta a win. It would be great to see him back next season, but if not then it was definitely fun watching him work over the last 16 seasons.
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