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Thursday, January 20, 2011
Updated: January 21, 3:06 PM ET
What's gone wrong for playoff Patriots?

By Jeremy Lundblad
ESPNBoston.com

Three straight postseason losses in three different seasons.

Tom Brady
Tom Brady, who hasn't been sacked five times in a game since 2003, has been sacked that many times in two of his past three playoff games.

Could there possibly be a common thread?

After all, the previous two games were very different from Sunday's loss to the New York Jets. Super Bowl XLII was a blown fourth-quarter lead. Last season's loss was out of hand just minutes into the game.

Yet there are a few trends that have emerged from the New England Patriots' past three postseason games.

In all three cases, a potent offense was left scrambling for points. So what went wrong? Let's examine three common areas of concern.

Pressure on Brady

The Jets got to Tom Brady for five sacks Sunday. Shaun Ellis and crew kept pressure on the Patriots quarterback despite overloading the secondary. In fact, the Jets utilized four or fewer pass rushers on 44 of 50 dropbacks, yet still managed to apply consistent harassment.

It was the first time Brady had been sacked five times in a game since Super Bowl XLII against the New York Giants.

That playoff connection brings up a troubling trend.

Dating to 2003, Brady has gone 120 consecutive regular-season starts without being sacked five times. Yet it's happened twice in his past three playoff games.

Last year's playoff game against the Ravens followed the same storyline, as Brady was sacked three times. The first led to a lost fumble in the Patriots' own red zone on just their third play from scrimmage. In what became a blowout, that was a clear turning point.

Brady has been brought down 13 times total in his past three postseason starts. This contrasts significantly with the dynasty years of the early 2000s. In Brady's first nine playoff games, he was brought down a total of 12 times.

So why haven't the Patriots been able to protect their prized asset? It would be far less troubling if they hadn't been doing such a good job in the regular season.

In 2007, in the midst of one of the most prolific passing seasons in NFL history, Brady was only sacked 21 times. In 2009, the team only allowed 18 sacks, the fewest by a Patriots team since the schedule went to 16 games. New England was sacked on only 3 percent of its pass plays, the second-lowest mark in the NFL that season. The offensive line's performance was even more impressive, considering that two of those 18 sacks were of backup Brian Hoyer in garbage time.

Again in 2010, the offensive line was strong during the regular season. The Patriots were sacked 25 times, the fourth-fewest in the NFL, and second to the Colts among AFC teams.

The Patriots won three Super Bowls in part by keeping Brady on his feet. Now, consistent pressure has contributed to turnovers, hurried throws and, ultimately, three straight postseason losses.

Losing offensive rhythm

The Patriots struggled to find an offensive rhythm Sunday, as evidenced by 127 net yards in the first half.

Appearing on Boston sports radio station WEEI on Monday, Brady reflected on one key area of struggle.

"We weren't effective enough in our play-action pass, in making big gains out there to take them out of what they were doing," he said. "More so than anything, that's what it came down to."

Poor production on play-action may seem fairly trivial, particularly for a team that works out of the shotgun so often. However, as Brady alluded to, it allowed the Jets to dictate the game.

Out of the play-action, Brady finished 4-for-8 for only 23 yards. Factoring in a pair of sacks, the Patriots managed only eight net passing yards on 10 play-action dropbacks.

While certainly a small sample size, the numbers take on greater meaning considering Brady's effectiveness on play-action passes during the regular season.

He completed 70.6 percent of play-action passes for a 143.8 passer rating. Compare his 11.1 yards per attempt during the regular season to Sunday's 2.9 yards per attempt.

So what went wrong? In part, it comes back to the Jets' defensive pressure. In 115 regular-season dropbacks in play-action, Brady was sacked only six times. It happened twice in 10 dropbacks on Sunday.

Of course, this wasn't the first time that New England failed to establish offensive rhythm.

Last year against the Ravens, a massive early deficit did most of the damage. Trailing 24-0 in the first quarter, New England found itself in an unfamiliar position.

The lead allowed the Ravens to drop back and take away the middle of the field. Brady finished 0-for-7 with an interception on passes in the middle of the field. During the 2009 regular season, that's where he was most efficient, completing 72.9 percent of passes in that direction.

Super Bowl XLII was perhaps the best example of the Patriots getting forced out of their bread-and-butter offense.

During the 16-0 regular season, Brady and Randy Moss made the deep ball a key part of the offensive arsenal. That led to 13 touchdowns on passes thrown over 20 yards. Of those, five came on throws over 41 yards. Brady wound up with an almost unfathomable 109.0 passer rating on passes thrown over 20 yards.

So what happened in the Super Bowl? The Giants took away the deep ball, and Brady finished 0-for-8 on such throws.

In all three games, a significant part of the offense remained dormant. A failure to adjust prevented points from going on the board.

Plagued by slow starts

The Patriots may have led 3-0 after the first quarter Sunday, but that was only because the Jets failed to convert on a red zone opportunity that came gift-wrapped by Tom Brady.

Once again, the Patriots were plagued by turnovers and inefficient offense in the first quarter of a playoff game.

One of the NFL's top scoring teams in the first quarter, New England came up with only three points despite two trips inside the Jets' 30-yard line.

The Jets were a notoriously slow-starting team in 2010, illustrated by their failure to score an offensive touchdown in the first quarter since Week 4. Understanding that need to come out strong, this stands out as a huge missed opportunity for New England.

Brady's interception on the Jets' 28 was perhaps most notable for ending his record streak of 339 consecutive passes without getting picked. However, it also meant the end of a lesser-known streak.

He had thrown 128 straight passes in the first quarter without an interception, a key to the Patriots' early-game success.

That streak dated to last season. His previous first-quarter pick? Against the Ravens last postseason, when he threw two interceptions in the opening frame.

Here again, we have a trend extending to the past three playoff defeats. The Patriots' first-quarter performances have set them back for the rest of the game. Brady in particular has been terrible, and the offense has followed suit.

Last season against the Ravens stands out as one of Brady's worst quarters ever. He finished with two interceptions and a lost fumble to go with zero net passing yards.

Against the Giants, the slow start hangs more on the defense, which allowed New York to open the game with the longest drive in Super Bowl history (9:59). Still, Brady was just 3-for-7 for 23 yards.

Over these three losses, Brady has a 22.6 passer rating in the first quarter.

Since 2007, he has committed only five first-quarter turnovers in 49 regular-season games. The Patriots are 41-8 in those starts.

He has four turnovers in his past three postseason games. The Patriots have lost all three.

Jeremy Lundblad is a researcher with ESPN Stats & Information. He provides statistical analysis for ESPNBoston.com.