FOXBORO -- The New England Patriots defense was superb in 2019, and it absolutely deserved better than an early playoff exit in the AFC Wild Card round.
The defending Super Bowl champions saw their season end Saturday night at Gillette Stadium with a 20-13 loss to the Tennessee Titans. This defeat stings in many ways for the Patriots, but one of the biggest regrets has to be that they wasted one of the premier defenses of the Bill Belichick era.
"I think we’ll look back, and there were some good things," Patriots safety Devin McCourty said of his team's season-long performance defensively. "Obviously, we did some good things. My 10th year -- it’s hard to look past the last game when you don’t finish how you want. This was a season we did some things well. We played well in the second half, we didn’t give up any points or whatever, but we needed to make a few more plays tonight and we didn’t. So, I’m sure in a couple weeks and probably years to come understand how special the team, the defense, was, but I always say, teams aren’t special unless you win the last game of the year."
The Patriots defense was one of the league's best during the regular season. It ranked No. 1 in many categories, including points allowed, total yards allowed per game, yards per play and third down percentage. Veteran cornerback Stephon Gilmore was named a first-team All-Pro and is the leading candidate for the AP Defensive Player of the Year award.
This defense also played well Saturday night and gave the Patriots several opportunities to win.
Sure, Titans running back Derrick Henry ran for 182 yards -- the most ever given up by a Belichick-led Patriots defense in a playoff game. But the Titans only scored 14 points before a pick-6 with nine seconds left in the fourth quarter. Tennessee's 272 total yards of offense was its lowest in a game since Week 8. Giving up 14 offensive points at home should've been an automatic victory for the Patriots. The fact they still lost helps illustrate just how poorly the offense played.
The Patriots' 13 points ties their lowest scoring output in a home playoff game during Belichick's 20 years as head coach. New England had four second-half drives needing only a field goal to take the lead and punted each time. The Patriots defense opened the fourth quarter by forcing the game's first turnover. Duron Harmon picked off Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill to give Tom Brady and his offense a chance to march down the field for the go-ahead score.
The offense managed to pick up only one first down on a penalty before punting. The Patriots defense stood tall again on the ensuing Titans drive and forced a punt, but it didn't matter. New England took the ball and went three-and-out as Brady and wide receiver Phillip Dorsett weren't on the same page on a third-down pass.
"I definitely think – in regards to tonight – third down and red area were a problem for us," Brady admitted. "I don’t think those were particularly great areas – you’re right – over the course of the season. So, yeah. It was just a tough way to end it tonight, and again, I give them a lot of credit. They made more plays than we did. If we want to win those games, we’re going to have to do a better job."
The Patriots defense was more than good enough to win a Super Bowl if the offense was just a little bit better than it ultimately performed. Now the Patriots enter an offseason of unknowns that could see several important defensive players leave the franchise. Veterans such as Devin McCourty, Kyle Van Noy, Danny Shelton, Adam Butler, Jamie Collins and Elandon Roberts all are free agents.
It's difficult to look back at an entire season right after a crushing loss, but when the Patriots do remember 2019 and this particular defensive group, they'll likely feel the frustration of what might have been.
"(The defense) was good. We played good at times," Gilmore said. "I think we were one of the top defenses, but that doesn't matter. We came up short as a team, and that's the only thing that matters."