Patriots

Pats can restore the faith

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Pats can restore the faith

By Rich Levine
CSNNE.com

So far this season, the Patriots have beaten an average NFL team at Gillette Stadium. They've lost to a very good team on the road. They've struggled with, but eventually beaten, a very bad team at Gillette.

Not exactly the greatest sample when you're trying to gauge the quality of an NFL contender. They won both games they should have won, they lost the one they should have lost, and over the course of those three games we didn't learn much.

Seriously, what do you know about the Patriots now that you didn't already know by the end of training camp?

That the defense has issues? That the secondary is undersized and often overmatched? That they struggle on the road? That unless Tom Brady plays out of his pigtails, there's a very good chance that they'll lose?

We already knew that stuff. The issues are nothing new.

What we still haven't learned, or what, at this point, we're still left to ponder, is whether those issues are something the Patriots can overcome. Because let's face it every team has issues. The question is whether, over time, a team can gel around those shortcomings; either improve them, or develop some kind of scheme that best masks them. OK, that's pretty obvious. But that's where we are with the Pats. We know the problems; we're just not sure if there's a solution.

Common sense says there's not. I mean, even in victory, there was something so fishy about the way the Pats played last Sunday. That was reinforced by how easily the Jets ran train on Buffalo yesterday afternoon. Throw in the fact that the Bengals lost to the Seneca Wallace-led Browns and the significance of both Patriot wins took a huge hit.

It's just looking more and more like it's not the Pats year. That doesn't mean they can't sneak into the playoffs, or have a couple games that leave us saying, "You know, these guys can be a pretty good team!" But at the same time, try and picture Devin McCourty and Kyle Arrington lined up across from Greg Jennings and Donald Driver four months from now in Dallas. Doesn't that feel wildly out of reach?

But it is early. We still can't be sure. As of right now, despite every instinct and ounce of logic in my brain, I'm not ready to count out the Pats. This team has significant strengths. They have weapons and playmakers and the football minds to find something that clicks. You'd be crazy to cash in all your faith. If you did, you wouldn't be a fan.

And that brings us to tonight.

A win over the Dolphins won't make the season regardless of how the game plays out, the Patriots problems will still exist but a win will mean that they CAN win; that they can go on the road, within the division, and find a way to defeat a solid defensive team, with a strong running game, quality quarterback and one of the biggest, most athletic and talented receivers in the game. With a win, we'll take a step back from the ledge, and take a longer, closer look at what we have in Foxboro.

Last week the Jets showed us that a good team can go into Miami and come out with a victory, and if the Pats can follow suit, we'll have no choice but to believe, or at the very least cautiously extend our faith. A win, especially heading into the bye week, would be bigger than Vince Wilfork's ass.

But as beneficial as a victory would be to the psyche of Pats fans, a loss would be 10 times more crushing.

A loss reinforces all our insecurities. It takes those questions that have lingered since the start of training camp Can they overcome the lack of defensive depth? Can the secondary handle a legitimate passing attack? Can they win on the road? Can they win if Brady isn't more perfect than Curt Henning? and brings us ever closer to conceding that there are no answers; or just that the answer's "no" across the board.

With a loss, the Patriots become the 2010 Red Sox; a team that we know, deep down, doesn't have what it takes, but that we keep giving every chance in the world to prove us wrong. We make excuses and extend once firm deadlines for them to turn it all around, only to be left disappointed and dissatisfied.

With a loss, it becomes a lot easier to gauge the Patriots status as a realistic Super Bowl contender, and a lot harder to take them seriously.

Rich Levine's column runs each Monday, Wednesday and Friday on CSNNE.com. Rich can be reached at rlevine@comcastsportsnet.com. Follow Rich on Twitter at http:twitter.comrlevine33

'Man, why do we continue to do this?' Patriots FG block work finally pays off

'Man, why do we continue to do this?' Patriots FG block work finally pays off

FOXBORO -- Stay low. Drive off the tight end's inside shoulder. And whatever you do, keep your feet. You don't want to be falling into kicker and picking up a penalty. 

Those were the kinds of things that were bouncing around somewhere in Cassius Marsh's subconscious as he lined up to try to block Falcons kicker Matt Bryant's field-goal attempt from 37 yards away at the end of the first quarter. Swimming past his blocker off the snap, Marsh got both arms extended and into the path of Bryant's kick, knocking it down and giving his team a boost. 

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"Guys work hard on that every week," Bill Belichick said after his team's 23-7 win. "Cassius has gotten some opportunities in practice. It’s hard to block Steve [Gostkowski]. Steve gets good height on the ball, gets the ball off quickly. I think this one with not quite as much height maybe as Steve's ball, or at least what Steve's balls were in practice, Cassius got a hand on it. 

"It was a big play for us because, again, we worked so hard on that and that’s everybody across the board. That’s all 11 guys, not just the guy that blocks it. The other guys have to do their job and if they block Cassius and take him away then that gives somebody else an opportunity so we never know how that’s going to go. We just want everybody to come hard and do their job right and wherever the opening is it is. That was a big play for us . . . 

"You can see the whole team – we were all excited. Sideline, players, guys on the field. That was a big moment for us. Our special teams units work very hard. They take a lot of pride in their job. The return teams, the coverage teams, the field goal and the field goal block team. It’s good to see that hard work pay off in a big play like that."

It was a big enough play that it earned Marsh a high-five from his coach. Marsh laughed about his reception on the sideline, remembering that the last time he got that kind of recognition from Belichick it came after a Week 4 sack.

"That's pretty much it that I can remember," Marsh said, beaming. "He only really smiles in situations like that so you've gotta cherish those moments."

The Patriots recovered at their own 26-yard line and embarked on an eight-play, 75-yard touchdown drive to get them on the scoreboard.

"With the defense playing as well as they were, to be able to preserve the shutout at the time was big," said special teams captain Matthew Slater. "Those are huge momentum plays when you're able to block a kick. It's not a traditional play that happens every game. Huge play. A UCLA guy stepping up, who would've thought? 

"You gotta tip your hat to those guys because they coach that, they work that and sometimes it seems like, 'Man, why do we continue to do this?' But it paid off for us tonight. You tip your cap to not only Cash but the rest of the guys on that unit." 

While Marsh's block was the highlight, it was a strong night overall for New England's special teams units. Every Falcons drive started inside their own 30-yard line, and Gostkowski had kicks returned to the 12, 19 and 18 before they were stopped.

Slater called it the most complementary game the Patriots played all season. Offense, defense, special teams. They all worked together to make Sunday perhaps their most dominating performance of the year. 

"That's the effort that we've been looking for and striving for all year," Slater said. "I think that's a good starting point for us. Lot of football left. Nine games left so we're going to have to continue to do it and be consistent week in and week out."

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Butler credits improved Patriots defense for 'playing smarter'

Butler credits improved Patriots defense for 'playing smarter'

As safety Duron Harmon emerged from the showers following the Patriots 23-7 win over the Falcons, he noticed a crowd gathered by his locker. As one of the captains of the team - and a man nicknamed by teammates as “The Voice” because of his ability to articulate the right words at the right time, the affable safety is a must listen postgame. But for a change, Harmon knew the mass gathering of media wasn’t there for him - at least not yet. We were there for Malcolm Butler, who had just played his best game of the season.

“You all want to talk to Malcolm?” Harmon sang. “I’d want to talk to Malcolm too.”

Devin McCourty got in on the act as well with some good-natured chirping in Butler’s direction. Both safeties were energized by the victory but also, it seemed, by the performance of a player they’ve come to rely on in games just like this. 

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“Awww man, Malcolm. . . Malcolm was great for us,” said Harmon later. “We need that.”

It's hard not to draw the parallel between Butler having his best performance of the season a week after making two of the biggest plays in the game against the Jets. He did all this while the man who indirectly caused so much of the 28-year old’s troubles - Stephon Gilmore - hasn’t been able to play because of a concussion. Meanwhile, an undrafted player in his 6th year, Johnson Bademosi, has emerged opposite Butler to play very sound football.

“Communication,” said Butler of the team’s defensive improvements. “Just playing smarter and better. That’s all.”

Butler himself didn’t want to spend much time analyzing his own performance. That’s usually not his thing. And it wasn’t as if that performance was perfect. Far from it. But Butler’s energy was evident right from the jump. He stuck his nose in there on running plays to his side, including a terrific submarine tackle of Tevin Coleman in the opening quarter. Butler also got his fair share of Julio Jones over the course of the night. Even though he surrendered that late touchdown to the Falcons wideout, he showed not only a willingness to play the big dog, but to go right at him. That is - after all - a Butler trademark. 

“Just competing,” said Butler. “Great player; you just got to compete.”

It’s not just competing, but it’s playing with confidence, something Butler said was an issue for him in the aftermath of his snap reduction in New Orleans. But now? That seems long gone and hard to find.

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