In exchanges with family members and friends this morning, the same topic came up: What do the Patriots have to do to improve to beat the likes of the 49ers and Ravens?
After taking a step back and realizing that some good fortune/breaks is part of it (e.g. Ravens looked beaten in Denver in the divisional round), here are a few thoughts on areas the Patriots could improve:
1. Starts with defense. The Patriots should be able to count on a good second-year jump from 2012 first-round draft choices Chandler Jones and Donta' Hightower, but they can't just rely on that. In the words of Tom Brady, "The mark of any great defense is how quickly you can force the quarterback into making decisions." The Patriots don't do that enough. Is it more about personnel or scheme? This has been an annual storyline at this time of year, seemingly going back to the team's last Super Bowl victory.
2. More speed at wideout. The Patriots are not as potent at that position, from a big-play perspective, as they could be. Contrast the speed the Ravens have at the position and it is striking. The Patriots have dynamic players at running back and tight end, but the receiver spot needs more speed.
3. Getting back to situational football roots. Watching the Ravens take a late-game safety brought back memories of Bill Belichick's brilliant decision in Denver to have Lonie Paxton snap the ball through the uprights. The Patriots seem to have lost a bit of their edge in that area (e.g. end-of-second-quarter clock mismanagement against the Ravens), which comes back to coaching in the big games.
4. Finding/developing a Vonta Leach type player. The Ravens' offense was 9 of 16 on third down, which is solid (the 49ers were just 2 of 9). One area that stood out was that when it was third-and-1 and the Ravens decided to run behind fullback Vonta Leach, they got the tough yards. For those who believe that the mark of a good running team is one that can grind out the yards when the defense knows it coming (hand raised here), the Patriots could benefit from finding/developing a Leach-type bulldozer. They ran it well overall this year, but when they needed it most in the most important game of the year, they didn't come through.
5. Bringing back the big play on kickoff returns. Jacoby Jones' 108-yard kickoff return for a touchdown to open the second half served as a reminder that the Patriots need to address their kickoff return unit (which was something noted at this time last year as well). This isn't to pin it on primary returner Devin McCourty, as he is just one of 11 players on the unit, but the Patriots didn't receive enough momentum-swinging plays from their kickoff return group. Maybe the answer is on the roster in Jeff Demps, and/or maybe it calls for some scheme tweaks, but getting the big play back should be a priority.