Patriots

Pats defense fails at the end in 24-20 loss to Giants

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Pats defense fails at the end in 24-20 loss to Giants

FOXBORO -- The parallel is impossible to ignore, and you can be sure few will be ignoring it.

Summary and statistics WATCH: Best & Worst from the game

Patriots move ahead in the final minutes. Patriots merely need to stop the Giants from driving the length of the field to win the game. Patriots instead can't make third-down stops when they need to, commit critical mistakes at crucial times, and allow a touchdown with only seconds remaining, giving Tom Brady and the offense -- which had just authored a late fourth-quarter drive that had seemingly won the game -- no time to pull off a miracle finish.

But this isn't Glendale, Arizona, in February 2008. This is Foxboro, Massachusetts, in November 2011. The Patriots' 24-20 loss to the Giants on Sunday at Gillette Stadium may not echo down the corridors of time, as their 2008 defeat will, but it starkly demonstrates the dilemma facing coach Bill Belichick and his staff as the season heads into the second half.

For -- just as they did in February 2008 (told you it was impossible to ignore) -- the Pats blew not one, but two fourth-quarter leads on Sunday. Even though the Giants were playing without their top running back in Ahmad Bradshaw, and one of their top wide receivers in Hakeem Nicks, the Pats still allowed them to put together back-to-back scoring drives of 85 and 80 yards in the final nine minutes, erasing deficits of 13-10 and 20-17.

The problem is clear: When it counted the most, they were the same big-play-surrendering, key-penalty-committing, can't-get-off-the-field-on-third-down crew that's had Patriots Nation in a panic since last Sunday's gashing at the hands of the Steelers.

The standard New England explanation -- "They made more plays than we did" -- is true enough, but it also glosses over critical errors by the defense, the types of errors they've been making all season:

Kyle Arrington -- who, to be fair, had made some crucial plays earlier, including an end-zone interception that prevented New York from building a 17-3 lead -- committed a pass-interference penalty against Mario Manningham during the first of the fourth-quarter drives that enabled the Giants to move from their 25 to the Pats' 40. Then, on a third-and-five from the 10, Manningham burned Arrington for the touchdown that put New York in front, 17-13.

After Brady had driven the Pats 64 yards for the go-ahead score with 1:46 left, Giants tight end Jake Ballard got behind linebacker Tracy White -- playing because Gary Guyton and Brandon Spikes left the game with injuries -- and caught a 28-yard pass on third-and-10 that put New York on the New England 39.

Two plays later, Sergio Brown committed his own pass-interference penalty -- this one against Victor Cruz at the goal line -- that put the Giants on the Patriots 1. Brown said he was surprised by the flag ("I was playing the ball . . . I didn't think they were going to call it"), but he appeared to run into Cruz as the pass was arriving.

Then, on third-and-goal, Eli Manning threaded the needle to Ballard in the end zone for the game-winning touchdown with 19 seconds left.

"At the end of the day, we take it on our shoulders," said linebacker Jerod Mayo. "We have to close the game, and we didn't execute when we needed to."

"It's frustrating," said linebacker Rob Ninkovich, "to let things slip away after a strong first half."

And it was a strong first half for the defense; in fact, it was a strong three-plus quarters. They held the Giants scoreless in the first half, and only allowed one touchdown in the first 45 minutes even though New York got into the red zone three times. When New England went ahead, 13-10, on a 45-yard field goal by Stephen Gostkowski with 7:13 to play, there was even a feeling the Pats would be able to protect that lead. After all, they'd held the Giants to 229 yards total offense through the first three quarters, limited Manning to 12 completions in 26 attempts for only 157 yards and had even made a big play: The Arrington end-zone interception with 2:15 left in the third quarter after the Giants, leading 10-3, had moved to the New England 5.

But when the game was on the line, the defense folded . . . as it has all too often this season, and in recent seasons past (or have you forgotten the 2006 AFC championship game, in addition to the Super Bowl against the Giants)?

Coach Bill Belichick cryptically complained about the two interference calls -- "The last two calls were tough . . . That's a lot of yards on those two plays." -- but neither seemed to be a particularly egregious mistake by the officiating crew. Nor can they totally be blamed for the 165 yards the defense surrendered while trying to hold a fourth-quarter lead.

The breakdowns denied Brady his 33rd career fourth-quarter comeback victory. He and the offense were held in check throughout the first half, but they found their rhythm in the final quarter-plus.

Trailing 10-3, Brady completed passes of 27 and 28 yards to Wes Welker, then hit Aaron Hernandez with an 11-yard toss that moved the ball to the Giants 5. On the next play, he found Hernandez for the early fourth-quarter touchdown that tied the game at 10-10.

Later in the quarter, New England took its first lead in three weeks as Brady moved the Pats from their 21 to the Giants 26, setting up the Gostkowski field goal.

And then, after the Giants re-took the lead, Brady drove the Pats 64 yards with just under three minutes to play, hitting tight end Rob Gronkowski with a 14-yard touchdown pass on a fourth-and-nine play with 1:36 left that put New England in front, 20-17.

But it was Manning, not Brady, who'd be credited with the fourth-quarter comeback on this day . . . which led to a little bragging by Giants running back Brandon Jacobs.

"To me, Manning's better than 12 Brady," said Jacobs. "12 couldn't get it done today. 10 got it done."

Except, unlike 10, 12 didn't get to play against the Patriots defense.

Patriots hit heights in altitude of Mexico City against Raiders

Patriots hit heights in altitude of Mexico City against Raiders

In a conference call last week, Raiders coach Jack Del Rio wondered if Sunday's game in Mexico City with the Patriots might show how two contrasting approaches to handling the altitude could impact the outcome. 

Bill Belichick, Josh McDaniels and Tom Brady made sure of it. 

The Patriots utilized a hurry-up attack during their first drive -- a 16-play sequence -- that tested Oakland's conditioning early. Who would handle it better? The team that spent the week training at altitude in Colorado Springs? Or the team that wanted to beat the effects of the altitude by training at sea level and traveling to Mexico City the day before the game?

PATRIOTS 33, RAIDERS 8

Judging by how Raiders rookie defensive back Obi Melifonwu asked to come out of the game, and seeing linebacker Nicholas Morrow doubled over on the sidelines during the series, the Patriots initially looked like the more well-conditioned club. 

Stephon Gilmore and Danny Amendola had to leave the game briefly because they were dehydrated, but the final score, 33-8, suggested that the Patriots were better prepared.

Brady certainly had no issues playing at Estadio Azteca. He finished the game having gone 30-for-37 for 339 yards and three touchdowns. He had a quarterback rating of 131.9. 

At various points, Brady's name was chanted at the stadium, which he said caught him by surprise. He recently watched the television copy of last year's Texans-Raiders game just to get a sense for what the crowd would be like, and he remembered hearing Raiders fans dominating the crowd.

"That was very much a surprise," Brady said of the cheers. "Especially since seeing some of last year's game; they were very pro-Raider. But it seemed like we had a lot of Patriots fans here too, so that was great to see."

Rob Gronkowski said that the interaction with the fans in Mexico -- which included walking from the locker room through the stands to the sidelines -- was one of the things that made the trip a memorable one. 

"We really didn't get to do that much, explore around or anything, but we got to interact with the fans and everything coming out of the tunnel," he said. "That was a cool experience, seeing all the fans go wild and everything, giving them high-fives, so that was super neat.

"I wasn't sure what to expect, never played down here. It was a great experience, though. The way the fans were interacting was actually unbelievable. They were super loud. They sounded proud, and it was just a great experience overall coming here. Having that type of experience definitely makes it worthwhile and awesome."

Stephen Gostkowski, who turned in one of the plays of the day with a 62-yard field goal at the end of the first half, was similarly grateful to play in such a unique environment. 

"It was just an unbelievable atmosphere," Gostkowski said. "The stadium was great. The fans were unreal. Just a fun experience. To have a hand in a win, see the excitement from all the guys, it was really cool."

"That was pretty cool," Brady added. "I've been around a long time so if you're a fan of the NFL, you've probably seen me at some point, but it's still an incredible experience to come here and play football and see the reception and hopefully there's more games here, and the game continues to grow, and other people get to see it in person and experience it because it's a game that I love and so do a lot of other people around the world."

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Hard to find a Patriots equal in soft AFC

Hard to find a Patriots equal in soft AFC

John Elway created a stir this week when he said his Broncos, after a 3-1 start, had “gotten a little bit soft." Elway, the Broncos GM, said that after five straight Denver losses – the last two by the combined score of 92-39

Denver’s head coach Vance Joseph said Elway’s remark bothered him. He talked to his players about it. On Sunday, the Broncos went out and did something about it. They lost by just three at home against the Cincinnati Bengals. Yay.

They’re pretty much all soft in the AFC this year. Check out the AFC West. There’s Denver. And the Raiders – who the Patriots handled with disturbing ease on Sunday, 33-8. The 6-4 Kansas City Chiefs, who, after starting the season 5-0, just lost on the road to the one-win Giants.

MORE:

The AFC East is soft. Miami was 4-2. It’s lost four straight including a 40-0 loss to Baltimore. The Jets were 3-2. They’re now 4-6 (which is a minor miracle given how ragged their roster is). The Bills were 5-2. Now they’re 5-5, having lost by a combined 101-34 the past two weeks as coach Sean McDermott willingly stuck a butter knife in an electrical outlet and replaced Tyrod Taylor with a not-ready-for-preseason-Week-4 Nathan Peterman.

The AFC South is led by the Jaguars and Titans. Jacksonville -- which can play some defense -- isn’t as bad as the rest. The Jags have won four straight and play cutthroat defense, but they had their hands full with the 0-10 Browns on Sunday. During the week, running back Leonard Fournette complained about having to play in the cold in Cleveland. At least he showed up Sunday and ran for 111. The Titans are awful when they leave Tennessee, which was further proven last Thursday when they lost 40-17 at Pittsburgh. Since October began, they’ve been outscored 122-43 in four road games. Their one road win in that span was a 12-9 decision over Cleveland. 

The big, bad AFC North contingent led by the Steelers at 8-2? Talented. But led by a forever-whining, passive-aggressive quarterback who openly and annually mulls retirement and two “me-first” skill guys in Antonio Brown and Le'Veon Bell. Their greatest strength may be in executing elaborate post-touchdown skits. Vital.

Meanwhile, here are the boring-ass Patriots. Yeah, they have Tom Brady and Bill Belichick and continuity in the program and coaching staff, but the gap between them and everyone else in the conference is that they don’t worry about the cold or the road or the five-act plays after they score.

They stayed a week in Colorado Springs to get ready for the altitude. Two Patriots -- Stephon Gilmore and Danny Amendola -- had to be treated for dehydration in the second half. After five PLAYS, Raiders rookie Obi Melifonwu was asking out of the game, saying he couldn’t breathe.

The Raiders -- a team that went 12-4 last year -- haven’t improved a bit defensively all season. They are, under head coach Jack Del Rio, one of those “we do what we do” defenses the Patriots love to face because it’s like shooting fish in a barrel. Brady is now 8-1 against Del Rio-led teams/defenses and the numbers against Del Rio’s teams are absurd: 225 completions on 310 attempts for (73 percent) for 2,387 yards, 21 touchdowns and zero interceptions.

It just feels like the AFC is a collection of teams, with an overwhelming majority of them in turn-it-on, turn-it-off mode. Their coaches are just kind of casting about, constantly open to suggestion and willing to give anything a shot because, hell, they better try something to get hot or they’ll be passing out resumes at the Combine in four months.

The Patriots remaining schedule goes like this: Dolphins, Bills, Dolphins, Steelers, Bills, Jets. Shake me awake on December 17 when the Steelers game comes. And we have a mountain of data explaining how that one will go, too.

I’m not weary of the team. It’s historic and fascinating, like watching a hooded Mozart compose and a helmeted Van Gogh paint every week. But the exercise of trying to conjure scenarios where the Patriots play November football with the exquisite ineptitude of their opponents is not easy.

They are doing this without Julian Edelman or Dont'a Hightower. They played Sunday without Chris Hogan, David Andrews, Marcus Cannon and Matt Slater.

Offenses can’t score against them. Defenses can’t stop them. They create points on special teams. They manage the game, the clock and their opponents like simple arithmetic while every other team’s doing trigonometry. What was broken in September has been long fixed.

The time will come again when the Patriots appear just as inept, clueless and mired in mediocrity as every other AFC team appears right now. But it won’t be this year.

So embrace the softness? I guess?

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