Yesterday they had a chance at home to take hold of their division and disprove their doubters. Instead, in the wake of their second loss in a row coming out of their bye, the concerns regarding what ails the football team that hails from Foxboro are growing.
Sunday's loss to the New York Giants was the first time the New England Patriots have suffered a back-to-back loss since Dec. 6, 2009. Tom Brady has never played in a Super Bowl after a season during which he lost two games in a row.
The most troubling part about the losses is that in both games the Patriots never stopped having a chance to win it. Even after four turnovers and seven penalties for 81 yards, a scoreless first half and what was perhaps the worst overall performance by Tom Brady in his post-2007 undefeated regular season incarnation; the Patriots had a three point lead with 1:36 left in the game.
When their defense played well against Manning in the first half, the Giants defense played even better against Brady. In the second half (mostly the 4th quarter) when Brady finally hit a rhythmic stride, Manning did him one better. He looked at the Patriots defensive backfield and dared them to stop him or make him pay for a mistake. He threw a couple of passes in that last quarter that were so intercept-able that one has to wonder if he was seriously just calling their bluff.
The bluff being that they are even professional football players.
The inexplicably stupid pass interference play by Sergio Brown was so egregious that if I were Bill Belichick I would never allow him to step back on my football field in a professional NFL uniform. It's perplexing and disconcerting that the same coach who released Brandon Meriweather would put a less talented, more obtuse version of him back on the field. It would be like if the Patriots had released rather than traded Laurence Maroney and then begun starting Jaquizz Rodgers.
Nothing makes sense. Looking at this game microcosmically and macrocosmically both present the same type of perplexity and disillusionment regarding their direction for the rest of the season.
The Patriots now look ahead to a Monday Night Football matchup against their rival New York Jets, who have been looking pretty good since recovering from their three game losing streak. Their defense did quite a number on the explosive Buffalo offense this past Sunday, and their run game with Shonne Green has improved drastically since the season's start.
So what did we learn about the Patriots on Sunday that must be kept in mind as the team prepares for the Jets?
Wes Welker is the MVP of the 2011 New England Patriots
For a large portion of Sunday's free-for-all that was passed off as an NFL game, it was pretty obvious that Wes Welker might be the only player with a clue. He was making catches that most players in the league couldn't make. Their offensive line looked like it was being held together by bench guys on a club team at a community college, Brady couldn't hit the broad side of a barn and somehow Wes Welker was getting catches; big, awesome catches. He finished the day with 9 receptions for 136 yards.
But even the spectacular numbers don't do him justice, as he was one of the rare guys who played with fire and determination the entire time. If his performance was not a rallying cry for his teammates, then the team doctors need to check those guys for a pulse. He is having a special season, and right behind Belichick and Brady, his performance will be critically important for this team to have any more success going forward.
Rob Gronkowski has guts, and he's REALLY good
He may be a big dumb jock, but that kid can play his spandex pants off. When Welker wasn't running around the field like a mad man with the entire Patriots squad on his back, Gronkowski was there for the handoff of the "not on my watch" baton. Gronk had 8 catches for 101 yards, and recorded the go ahead touchdown late in the fourth quarter. The best part of his touchdown catch was that it was the third time in a row that Brady had targeted him, after two incompletions in which the man coverage on the massive tight end was the best I've ever seen on him.
He is not afraid, and he does not get discouraged. He fought until something worked. As good as Hernandez is, and he is, Gronkowski has that same fire in his gut that Welker seems to have. He forced Brady to throw to him one more time because he knew he could get them the points. That's a superstar player in the making, and any offense with him on it has a chance. Plain and simple.
Something is up with Tom Brady
Don't start talking about how he is getting older and losing his skill set, because that's just pure garbage. Nobody as great as Brady decelerates from a 2010 unanimous NFL MVP to whatever Brady was on Sunday against the Giants. They just don't.
Brady exhibited many of the same issues that he had against the Jets in the playoffs last year. It seems that when his receivers are blanketed in tight man coverage all game, he struggles. This may seem like an obvious statement but couple that with the disastrous performance by his offensive line and Brady was in a lot of trouble. Most teams should be smart enough at this point to avoid zone coverage by their secondary against the Patriots, but at the same time, Brady was missing throws he normally makes even when guys are single covered. Hernandez was in place for a touchdown pass that was off the mark, and at least two of Brady's targets to Ochocinco were actually bad throws that he may have caught. It's tough to say Ocho would have caught them even if they'd been perfect throws; but still.
The first inclination is that there is a schematic, systemic issue with the way that the offense is operating on all levels. An offense with Deion Branch, Danny Woodhead, Welker, Hernandez and Gronkowski, as well as a pretty decent running game, should never have that much trouble getting open for their quarterback. Nor should their quarterback struggle so hard hitting his targets.
Two things have to happen: the offensive line needs to improve, and fast. In fact, they need to improve immediately or the Patriots will lose to the Jets next week. Secondly, offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien and Coach Belichick need to start figuring out how to balance their pass and run attacks to suit their game and clock management as well as optimize Brady's effectiveness while he readjusts.
There is NO hope for the Patriots' Secondary
They are a truly unredeemable lost cause, and there are still seven games left to play in the regular season. There is no way that group of cornerbacks and safeties will ever be reliable or talented enough to get the job done for their defense at all this year. It's time that Belichick completely redefines the way that he runs his defense.
He needs to take advantage of his actually very talented defensive line. Vince Wilfork, Andre Carter, Brian Waters, Gerard Warren, Albert Haynesworth and Kyle Love have all proven they can do what they are asked to do. Belichick needs to go back to the base 4-3 and absolutely pound the line of scrimmage and pressure the quarterback. He needs to let Brandon Spikes roam free and make big plays, because as we were reminded yesterday when he absolutely leveled big tight end Jake Ballard, he can. He needs to let Ninkovich and Mayo play more man coverage and come off the line, because they are both athletic and fast enough to do it.
And he needs to hope that enough of that pressure will make the opposing quarterback uncomfortable enough that he'll make mistakes. Kyle Arrington has a knack for the pick with five interceptions on the season. Heck, maybe even Vince can grab another one.