If there was a turning point during the Patriots loss to the Titans in the playoffs that encapsulated their struggles on offense this season it was having to settle for a field goal late in the second quarter after having first-and-goal from the one-yard-line. Sony Michel and Rex Burkhead were stopped on three-straight runs and, instead of going up 17-7, they were forced to take the three points and would eventually find themselves in a 14-13 hole at the half.
For a team that made notable tough-yardage touchdown finishes in last year's most critical playoff games, it was a stark contrast to when they couldn't get one critical yard this time around, and it resulted in a huge, game-changing swing of points. When it came to the "gotta have it" yards this season, the Patriots couldn't get them consistently.
The drop off in both the red zone and in short yardage situations should not have been that surprising. After seeing key point-of-attack players like Rob Gronkowski, Trent Brown and Dwayne Allen depart in the offseason, they lost James Develin and David Andrews in-season, and the turnover left the Patriots run game looking far different than 2018. Plus, losing a red zone target like Gronkowski compounded the issue, even if Gronk wasn't still the same receiving threat he once was.
Those struggles only exacerbated the general problems in a passing game that was adjusting to multiple new targets and a banged up offensive line. The team would have just two games all season with more than one 20-plus-yard scoring drive. In five games they'd have none of them at all. If you can't sustain your offense and you can't finish, every game will be a battle and, against good competition, that's what we saw this season.
Let's look at the five losses this season, as all featured red zone flame-outs that could've changed the course of the game. Against the Ravens, the Pats had two possessions inside the 10-yard-line that ended with field goals. Against the Texans, an impressive opening drive stalled out at the Houston five-yard-line - they'd lose by six points. In a seven-point loss to the Chiefs, two fourth-quarter drives that got inside the 10-yard-line resulted in just one field goal. Down 10-0 to the Dolphins in the season finale, the Pats were again held to three points after having first-and-goal from the seven.
And then there's the three-down failure against the Titans that changed the tenor of the game and set the course for the first Wild Card round loss in a decade. Contrast that with Rex Burkhead's game-winning touchdown in the 2018 AFC Championship or Sony Michel's sole touchdown of Super Bowl 53 and the difference between that championship team and this one is clear.
Their red zone touchdown rate fell from 62.9 percent in 2018 to 49.2 percent in 2019, 27th in the NFL. They finished 28th in the league converting third or fourth downs with one-to-three yards to go. Overall, their third down conversion percentage fell from ninth to 17th and their points-per-game (26.3) fell to its lowest level since the 2008 Matt Cassel year.
Those are some of the worst and most telling stats from the season. Both the passing and rushing attacks had their struggles this year, but not being able to run the ball effectively when close to the goal line was a fatal flaw that had ramifications in real points. That was an especially hard pill to swallow when that ability to finish with the running game was a key feature of last year's Super Bowl winners.
Perhaps most disturbing is that per Sharp Football Stats, the Patriots had the NFL's second-worst red zone rushing attack in the fourth quarter. With the games on the line and the end zone close by, the 2019 Patriots couldn't get it done.
This is sure to be a key area to be addressed this offseason as the Patriots try to get back to the kind of winning football that can produce critical yards at critical times.