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Tuesday, October 29, 2002

The four-game slide continues for the Patriots, and things are not encouraging. The chances that the Pats will join the 1999-2000 Broncos as the latest team to miss the playoffs completely the following year increase.

Some observations I gathered Sunday night…

There are several teams (including the Broncos, Packers, and Dolphins from this latest streak) in the NFL with more talent than the Patriots and that was true last year too.
Which is not to say the Patriots simply got lucky last year. Sure, there was some luck involved, but by and large they got where they ended up by outplaying their opponents, by executing well. There was otherwise nothing extraordinary about last year’s champs; they lacked, say, the offensive firepower of the Rams or the suffocating defense of the 2000-01 Ravens. The team had few if any superstars, whether on offense or defense.

Tom Brady won’t dazzle you but can get the job done most of the time. He’s more mobile than Drew Bledsoe, but he won’t make anyone forget John Elway. He throws well, but he’s no Dan Marino. He can lead a late-game rally, but no one thinks of him as the new Joe Montana. The important thing is that there is no facet of his game that’s just awful, the way there is most with NFL quarterbacks these days. In the Patriots case, his ability to move around more than Bledsoe was key since the team’s O-line was suspect.
Antowain Smith had a solid rushing season – not spectacular, but good enough to get the job done when the team had to run the football, such as when they had to keep the other team’s offense off the field. Troy Brown did an outstanding job both as a go-to wideout (though there are many better go-to wideouts in the NFL) and as a kick returner. The offense by and large didn’t turn over the ball much, which helped to keep the defense fresh.

The defense for their part performed well without blowing anyone away. For a successful team, they gave up a lot of yardage but became very stingy in the Red Zone, so it didn’t necessarily translate into lots of points for the opposition, who were settling for lots of field goals when they weren’t turning the ball over. It was hard to throw on them consistently. Their run defense, while not quite as good, was strong enough to prevent teams from playing ball control effectively against them. The Patriots forced more than their share of turnovers (though, again, not to a degree that pundits really stood up and took notice) and, late in the season were simply outstanding on special teams. They didn’t commit a lot of costly penalties either.

As we all remember, special teams was the key to their upset of the Steelers in the AFC title game; takeaways on defense was the key to their Super Bowl win.

This year in general, and this four-game stretch in particular, things have been different.

The run has become ineffective, so much so that defenses don’t respect it. (Smith’s per carry totals were decent against Denver, especially considering the quality of their run defense, but he wasn’t used much.) Opposing secondaries have taken more notice of Troy Brown and reduced his effectiveness; the development of Deion Branch and the increased use of the tight ends should improve that situation over the long haul but we’re not seeing it yet. And the O-line, even last year the closest thing the team had to a manifest weakness, has done a poor job of protecting Brady. For Brady’s part, at times this season, especially against Green Bay, did what he largely avoided doing last season – threw costly interceptions. A team that isn’t built around high-octane scoring can ill afford to turn the ball over.

Defensively, the team has been among the easiest to run on in the NFL, which leads to the other team’s offense being on the field too long. For five weeks in a row an opposing rusher had a big game. They’ve been porous in the Red Zone during this streak as well, leaving the offense to try and climb out of holes while holding on to the ball on long drives, which is not something this offense is very good at doing.

Special teams have been bad, especially on punts, although kicker Adam Viniateri has by and large continued to do everything asked of him at least with regard to field goals. On both sides of the ball, there have been too many momentum-crushing penalties to count.
The team has looked flat for long stretches, almost as if they were not ready to play.

Some would say the Law of Averages came back to haunt Bill Belichick and the Patriots. But this team has looked so bad in execution, so unprepared, so flat-out outplayed for much of this year that it’s easy to wonder if Belichick made a deal with the Devil that’s come due.

If I had to look for a silver lining… Denver wasn’t quite as effective an offensive force in the second half – the defense finally came up with an inspiring goal-line stand in the 4th quarter that kept the game alive. Brady and the offense put together a few solid drives late in the game. The dynamics of the game would have completely changed if the defense had put up a few more third down stops – the Patriots could not manage a single third down stop in the first half.

On the list of teams that stand between the Patriots and the last wild card, or for that matter the AFC East, none appears to be unstoppable. The AFC South is only sending one team to the postseason. The AFC North, barring Baltimore or Cleveland getting blazing hot, is most likely sending only one team to the postseason. Oakland may not be waiting to fold down the stretch this year, and it’s tough to imagine three teams from one division making the playoffs with this setup. Even Buffalo, everyone’s new darling at 5-3, has gotten where it is mostly on close wins against the runts of the NFL litter (Detroit, Chicago, Minnesota, and Houston; their one “quality” win came over an extremely banged-up Dolphin team) and the Vikings are only other team to lose to the Jets this season. And Miami’s now got a two game lead on the Pats but have to start Ray Lucas for another month and face late-season dates in both Foxboro and Orchard Park, which can’t warm the hearts of South Floridians much.

Still, they really need a win in Buffalo next week. It’s not hard to imagine Brady and company putting up a lot of points against a soft Bills defense that isn’t even good at shutting down “offenses” like those of the Texans and Lions. Unfortunately, it’s not much harder to imagine Travis Henry having a big game against the Patriots’ defense and Drew Bledsoe being especially ready to play against the team that cast him aside.

Dropping to 3-5 would really put the team’s playoff hopes on life support and just one more loss beyond that (a game in Oakland looms on the horizon) might be enough to pull the plug.

Their losing had never bothered me or anyone else all that much before this season. It’s almost enough to make you wish that the team we’re all used to calling the Patsies hadn’t gone and raised expectations on us like that. (OK, I’m lying.)


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