Patriots

Patriots

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – Seattle lost on Sunday. Went down 14-5 at Tampa Bay.

I mention this early on because it’s evidence that the league is whacked. Seattle’s the only team to beat the Tom Brady-led Patriots this season. They put up 31 against the Pats and they needed a late goal-line stand and a couple of uncharacteristic breakdowns (Julian Edelman’s fumble, Brady’s QB sneak bungle) to escape that night.

In other words, with a different outcome that night and the absence of a BS suspension for Brady to start the season, the Patriots would be 11-0.

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And the Seahawks' loss to Tampa, contrasted with their win over the Patriots, shows that it’s a matchup league, any given Sunday and all that.

I understand that the curb appeal of the Patriots 2016 season is pretty impressive.

It’s when you get up close and really get a good look at the innards of what’s going on that you have a more fatalistic view about what’s been going on, what continued to go on Sunday against the Jets.

Even allowing for a compressed week, and a return from the West Coast burning up their Monday, and a gimpy quarterback, and a division game on the road against a team that knows it well and puts the effort switch in the “ON” position when it sees the Patriots, there’s nothing we saw Sunday that allays the concerns that have been burbling for weeks.

 

In all three phases and on the sidelines, there are areas of concern.

Offensively, it’s not dire. The main concern is the health and well-being of Rob Gronkowski, who left before the first quarter was done with a back injury to accompany his chest injury. But Brady’s banged up and so is Martellus Bennett. Julian Edelman’s workload is increasing and the wear-and-tear on his 30-year-old frame has to be managed. Those issues are mitigated by the emergence of Malcolm Mitchell, the growing body of outstanding work from James White, the re-emergence of Dion Lewis and greater competency on the offensive line.

But if the offense goes south or Brady goes cold, the Patriots defense appears no closer to the upward arc of improvement it needs to be on to shut down teams and carry the day.

The Patriots will close the season against the Ravens, Broncos, Jets and Dolphins. The Ravens and Broncos are both top-five in yards allowed per game, the Jets are – as witnessed Sunday – a pain in the ass and the Dolphins have gotten themselves to 7-4 and will be no picnic to play against in the South Florida heat on New Year’s Day.

The sledding’s going to get tough for the Patriots offense. And given the relative comfort and ease that Ryan Fitzpatrick had guiding the Jets offense for a big chunk of Sunday, what quarterback wouldn’t be rubbing his hands together after watching film of the Patriots non-existent pressure and difficulty stopping wideouts?

Tack on the consternation being caused by Stephen Gostkowski as he missed another field goal on Sunday – this one from 39 – to run his misses total to seven (four field goals) and the impact that’s going to have on December football.

The sideline decisions are getting harder. Defensive coordinator Matt Patricia didn’t hatch anything exotic to make Fitzpatrick seem even remotely confused. And the game-sealing strip sack by Chris Long was a well-timed play that also had a whiff of “Well, they had to make a play sometime . . . ” They just picked an opportune time to make it. It doesn’t cover for the fact that they still seem to be spinning their wheels. Meanwhile, Gostkowski’s troubles are going to figure into strategy more and more. And the team’s clock management weirdness at the end of halves continues to be puzzling.

What they have going for them – what they always have going for them – is mental toughness when the poop is hitting the fan, and Brady.

“I thought the last seven minutes of the game, we did a lot of good things and played our best football,” said Bill Belichick. “That’s always important. It’s good situational football. It’s solid football in the fourth quarter. I liked the way our team competed. We didn’t start well, but we hung in there and battled all the way and made the plays we needed to make at the end. That’s what it’s all about.”

 

The three longest plays of the day for the Patriots offense came with less than 10 minutes left. There was a 25-yard find to Chris Hogan to put the Patriots at the Jets 8 with two minutes left. There was the 24-yard dart to Edelman on the second play of the game-winning drive. There was a 23-yarder to Hogan with 9:37 left to jumpstart a field goal drive that trimmed the deficit to 17-16.

Bigger than all of those was the fourth-and-4 completion to James White that extended the game-winning drive.

“He made a great play because the ball was thrown short of the sticks, and if we don’t make that play it’s hard to win the game,” acknowledged Brady. “We still had three timeouts and they would’ve gotten the ball and maybe we could’ve stopped them but that was a game-winning play, championship-type play that James made. So he did enough to shake off the tackle and get the first down. it was just a great play. There were a lot of great plays that we did there in the last seven minutes of the game there. It wasn’t our best effort, but that’s just what happens in these games sometimes.”

A few weeks back, we were talking about the Patriots’ margin over their competition and how they weren’t playing as much against opponents but a personal standard of perfection. That’s not as much the case now. They were life-and-death with the Seahawks and they died that night. They were life-and-death with the Jets Sunday and survived.

December and January football are all that’s left. The record looks great. The team really doesn’t.