NFL Divisional Round proves how far Patriots have fallen from league's elite

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Curran: Just how far have the Patriots fallen from the NFL's elite? originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

We all stand here, faces pressed against the glass, watching the NFL playoffs unfold. There’s some withdrawal going on in New England.

Blessed and fortunate beyond compare for 18 seasons? Yeah, yeah, yeah. Everybody knows that.

BE THAT AS IT MAY!!! How long until the Patriots are a factor in the NFL’s postseason tournament? Not as a mid-major with some spunk, a dream and nothing else, but as a realistic threat to get to the Final Four?

What did the eight teams that played this weekend and the four who play next weekend have that the Patriots currently don’t?

For starters, each one had an actual offensive coordinator. Some also had really experienced quarterback coaches. All of them had head coaches who specialized in offense.

In fact, only four head coaches who came up as defensive guys (Sean McDermott, Pete Carroll, Brandon Staley and Todd Bowles) got their teams into the 14-team playoff field. Ravens head coach John Harbaugh was a special teams coach before being hired in Baltimore. So if your head coach wasn’t raised from the coaching womb designing schemes to score, your team lost.

The best teams are not only the most prolific, they are the most situationally efficient. Or, smart.

The four teams remaining were inside the top seven in points per game. The Chiefs, Eagles and Bengals were No. 2, No. 3 and No. 5 in red zone efficiency. On third down, the Chiefs, Bengals and Eagles were 2, 3 and 4 and the 49ers were sixth.

You can romanticize the Patriots' 13-3 Super Bowl 53 win over the Rams and call it proof that defense still carries the day. But to get to that game, the Patriots needed three third-and-10 conversions on their game-winning drive in the AFC Championship Game and got them all because they had the greatest player in NFL history, the most complete tight end and one of the greatest playoff receivers executing them.

The players, coaches, scheme and DNA of the 2000-‘21 era are gone. So too is high-level situational execution. A team that raised banners by outsmarting opponents? In 2022, they were penalty-plagued, unimaginative, unable to get plays in on time, lacking in precision and knee-bucklingly dumb in big moments.

Installing a real OC -- Bill O’Brien is the only candidate the team’s spoken to who’s actually done the job -- will help the Patriots get back on the track to competency. But that’s the first stop. Prolific is probably a few stations away.

Curran: Patriots' OC search proves Belichick's comfort trumps all

It’s a damn track meet out there. Alabama head coach Nick Saban said this in March of 2021 when talking about the evolution of the college game:

"The game is different now. People score fast. … I grew up with the idea that you play good defense, you run the ball, you control vertical field position on special teams, and you're going to win. Whoever rushes the ball the most, for the most yardage is going to win the game. You're not going to win anything now doing that.

"The way the spread is, and the way that the rules are, to run RPOs, the way the rules are that you can block downfield and throw the ball behind the line of scrimmage, those rules have changed college football. No-huddle, fast ball has changed college football."

The estimable Phil Perry presented Bill Belichick with Saban’s quote in October of 2021.

"I don’t think having a good defense is a bad thing," Belichick responded. "It’s hard to score 50 points every game. It’s nice when you don’t have to score a lot of points. We won a Super Bowl scoring 13 points. That’s not a bad thing. Even last year (2020), pretty good defensive game and scored enough on offense.

"Football is a team game, and there’s three facets to it. If you’re not good in an area, it’s probably going to catch up with you against a better-balanced team. I understand what Nick’s saying. We’ve talked about that. There are definitely more challenges defensively than maybe what there used to be between the rules and the way the game is being played. There are a lot of good offensive coaches."

The Patriots didn’t have a good offensive coach leading their offense this year. And given the draft position and compensation of players at the separate position groups -- offensive line, wide receivers, tight ends and running backs -- none of the position coaches had a great year either.

That reality needs to be kept at the forefront as the offensive reboot begins after a wasted year.

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You can look at the Patriots' 22-18 loss to the Bengals on Christmas Eve and say, "If Rhamondre didn’t fumble, we win that one. We are real close!"

Facts? The Bengals were up 22-0 on the road by halftime and had sugarplums dancing in their heads as Joe Burrow threw a pick-six and had a touchdown pass dropped while Mac Jones completed a ricochet Hail Mary touchdown. Only the scoreboard was close.

As for Miami and Buffalo, who now may be perceived as ripe for the picking because they lost their last games? The only way New England overtakes either in 2023 is if they come back to the Patriots and New England improves to meet them.

The Patriots will make up some of that stagger with better coaching. And better offensive line play. And a sub-back who can be a change-of-pace pass-catching threat who spells Rhamondre Stevenson. And production from Jonnu Smith. And more poise, precision and velocity from Mac Jones. Hell, throw in everyone’s favorite, the field-stretching WR1, while we’re at it.

To return to the NFL’s upper class, the Patriots will need to outscore good teams. Without relying on punt returns, scoop-and-scores and ricochet touchdowns.

Everyone pays lip service to the presence of Bill Belichick, the competency of the defense and the tradition the Patriots built. But nobody’s scared of New England right now. The Patriots aren’t sure who or what they want to be and, as a result, they are their own biggest challenge.

Until the course is charted, we are all window lickers.