We’ve all seen it—the end of Good Will Hunting where Robin Williams tells Matt Damon “It’s not your fault.” It’s not the best scene in the movie (Ben Affleck’s “Best Part of My Day” speech holds that honor) but it’s a memorable cinematic moment nonetheless. I’m sure many of Stephen Gostkowski’s teammates used the same line Sunday after losing to Denver in the AFC Championship.
While it’s unfair to pin the two-point loss entirely on Gostkowski, he certainly deserves some of the blame. His first missed extra point in 10 years couldn’t have come at a worse time. And yes, extra points aren’t gimmes anymore. Kickers have been missing in record numbers since the NFL moved PATs back to the 15-yard-line this year. But until Sunday, Gostkowski had been as automatic as any kicker we’ve ever seen. His 523 consecutive extra points were an NFL record. Gostkowski missed three kicks total during the regular season and was perfect inside of 40 yards (17-for-17).
Just like Blair Walsh did a few weeks ago when he missed a chip shot that would have beat Seattle, Gostkowski said all the right things after the game. “I feel like I lost the game for the team ... It’s a sickening feeling,” he said. “I can’t really explain how I feel. I let a lot of people down.”
Obviously the Pats wouldn’t have had to go for two if Gostkowski had made his extra point, but nobody was more off their game than Bill Belichick on Sunday and it showed in the team’s uninspired play-call on the two-point conversion. Belichick is famous for pulling rabbits out of his hat but there was no such magic on this play. Tom Brady forced the ball to Julian Edelman in tight coverage, only to be picked by Bradley Roby. Rob Gronkowski broke free from Shiloh Keo on the play but by then, it was too late.
Maybe Belichick could learn a thing or two from Carolina. The Panthers drew up a beautiful play on their two-point attempt Sunday against Arizona, with Cam Newton faking the handoff to Jonathan Stewart on play-action before finding Mike Tolbert wide open for the touchdown. The play bordered on poor sportsmanship with Carolina already up by 25 but it reinforced the notion that Cam Newton and the Panthers can do whatever they want right now.
All day, New England’s play-calling was stale and predictable. The Patriots’ complete lack of a running game certainly limited their options offensively, but this wasn’t Bill’s finest work.
Many have questioned Belichick’s decision to go for it on fourth down on two separate occasions in the fourth quarter. I’m not one of those people. While the play-calling in both instances was pretty uncreative, going for it was the right choice.
It’s easy to say New England should have taken the points, unless you actually watched the game. Denver’s defense dominated in all phases Sunday. Even while blitzing on a season-low 17.2 percent of their plays, the Broncos generated immense pressure against New England’s patchwork offensive line, hounding Brady from the opening whistle. The 20 hits Brady took were the most by any quarterback this season. Meanwhile Aqib Talib and Chris Harris, who was playing through a painful shoulder injury, kept Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola under wraps for most of the game. With the way Denver’s defense was playing, there was no guarantee New England would get close enough to score again. They needed a touchdown.
New England’s defense, though lazy in spurts (particularly on the opening drive when the Broncos marched down the field against soft coverage), kept it from being a blowout. Jamie Collins got to Peyton Manning at will while Logan Ryan settled in nicely following a brutal pass interference in the first quarter. For the second time this year, Demaryius Thomas was a nonfactor against New England (two catches for 12 yards). Even C.J. Anderson, who throttled the Patriots back in Week 12, was relatively quiet aside from a 30-yard burst in the fourth quarter.
Gronkowski’s performance was one for the ages. When the Patriots desperately needed plays in the second half, Gronk singlehandedly kept New England afloat. Even with two and sometimes three defenders glued to him, Gronkowski was too much to handle. The 144 yards Gronk delivered Sunday were the most by a New England receiver in a playoff game since 2011 when Gronkowski put up 145 against Denver in the Divisional Round.
Gronk’s epic fourth-down conversions on the final drive should have been the stuff of legends. But instead they’ll probably be forgotten in the wake of New England’s disappointing defeat.
If there’s a way to stop Gronkowski, the NFL hasn’t figured it out yet. He’s a transcendent talent and arguably the best to ever play his position. Now all the Patriots need is a running game and a line to protect their Hall-of-Fame quarterback. New England’s prompt firing of offensive line coach Dave DeGuglielmo suggests the Pats want to fix that problem as quickly as possible.
It’s pretty hard to get excited about the Pro Bowl these days. It’s easy to see why when players like Teddy Bridgewater and Jameis Winston are getting invites. Bridgewater was the epitome of average during the regular season with 14 touchdowns and nine interceptions. Winston played well for a rookie but to call him an All-Star feels like a stretch.
Attendance in Honolulu has never been worse. Of the six original quarterbacks selected for the Pro Bowl, all have bowed out except for Russell Wilson. Going to the Pro Bowl is more about being free on the last Sunday in January than actually deserving to be there.
The good news is the Pro Bowl doesn’t have snubs anymore because everyone seems to make it. Allen Robinson, a deserving Pro Bowler by every metric, was passed over when the original participants were announced in December. But with the rash of “injury” replacements each year, there was never much doubt he would wind up in Honolulu.
Similar to the NBA Dunk Contest that usually features young players instead of established stars (LeBron James, one of the most electric dunkers of his generation, has never participated), the Pro Bowl is universally skipped by the game’s elite. Tom Brady, for example, has been invited to 11 Pro Bowls. He hasn’t shown up since 2005. Who knew a free trip to Hawaii would be so hard to give away?
Of course, the reason the Pro Bowl has always suffered compared to other All-Star events is because it’s held after the season when interest for both players and fans is at an all-time low. The NFL tried to combat this by moving the game up to the week before the Super Bowl but that’s created other problems. Now 14 players from the Broncos and Panthers have had to be replaced.
While the injury keeping Brady from playing would probably be listed as “lost to Denver,” Carson Palmer actually has a real reason to bow out. The Cardinals quarterback imploded in the playoffs following an MVP-caliber regular season. The culprit: a dislocated finger that has bothered him since Week 15.
Though Palmer didn’t miss any practice time during Arizona’s playoff run, it’s clear he wasn’t at full strength. Palmer received a grade of -9.6 from Pro Football Focus for his performance Sunday against Carolina. That’s his worst game since PFF began grading in 2007. Palmer has never played particularly well in the postseason (66.9 quarterback rating in four career playoff games) but I think the finger was to blame for his struggles this time around.
Quick Hits: A whopping 53.3 million viewers tuned into Sunday’s AFC Championship on CBS. Steelers/Jets in 2011 still holds the record for an AFC Championship at 54.8 million viewers … Thomas Davis broke his right arm in Sunday’s win over Arizona. He had surgery on Monday and expects to play in Super Bowl 50. Jared Allen, who broke his foot in the Divisional Round against Seattle, should be back for the Super Bowl as well … Both of Denver’s starting safeties were hurt on Sunday but both are expected to play in the Super Bowl. Free safety Darian Stewart sprained his knee while T.J. Ward is battling an ankle injury … If Zach Ertz wasn’t rich already, he is now. The Eagles tight end inked a five-year, $42.5 million contract extension on Monday. The deal comes with $20 million guaranteed. Ertz set career-highs with 75 catches and 853 yards this past season … Vince Young, a two-time Pro Bowler and former Rookie of the Year, was arrested for DWI in Austin, Texas early Monday morning. Young retired after being cut by the Browns in 2014 … In other police blotter, the Bellevue Police have recommended felony hit-and-run charges for Derrick Coleman. Police allege the Seahawks fullback was on synthetic marijuana when he hit another motorist back in October. Coleman served a team-imposed one-game suspension after the incident … According to ESPN, Mitchell Schwartz’s initial negotiations with the Browns “did not go well.” The impending free agent earned PFF’s sixth-highest tackle grade out of 76 qualifiers in 2015 … Jim O’Neil has interviewed for the 49ers’ opening at defensive coordinator. Niners LBs coach Jason Tarver and Ravens LBs coach Don Martindale are also in the running. O’Neil served as Cleveland’s DC in 2015 but has since been replaced by Ray Horton … Remember Rock Cartwright? I thought you might. The former Redskins and Raiders fullback will try his hand at coaching as the Browns’ offensive quality control coach. He’ll be reuniting with Hue Jackson, who coached Cartwright with Oakland from 2010 to 2011 … Pat Shurmur is headed to Minnesota where he’ll be the Vikings’ new tight ends coach. He was Philadelphia’s OC in 2015. That job now belongs to Frank Reich … Rob Boras will continue to be the Rams’ offensive coordinator. He’s held that position since Frank Cignetti’s firing in early December … Duron Carter, son of Hall-of-Fame wide receiver Cris Carter, is headed back to the CFL where he’ll play for the Montreal Alouettes. Carter tried out for the Colts last season but was cut at the end of training camp … Lou Anarumo took over as Miami’s defensive coordinator after the team fired Kevin Coyle back in October, but he’ll go back to coaching defensive backs in 2016. Vance Joseph was recently hired as the Dolphins’ new DC … Vic Beasley played his entire rookie season with a torn labrum but won’t require offseason surgery … Hall-of-Fame guard Russ Grimm was hired as the Titans’ new offensive line coach. He hasn’t coached in the NFL since 2012 … This ESPN Boston report from Mike Reiss suggests Scott Chandler, Brandon LaFell and Jerod Mayo could all be looking for new teams this offseason … Tony Horton, the creator of PX90, has offered to train Eddie Lacy this offseason. As you may recall, the festively plump running back was the star of last week’s Bump and Run. I called him Crossfit Eddie and other fun names.