MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. -- Which phrase best describes the New England Patriots' approach on Sunday against the Dolphins?
Choice 1: The Patriots tried desperately to win and the fact they couldn’t is humiliating, damning and cause for panic. Concern level: This.
Choice 2: The Patriots didn’t care if they won or lost and the fact that they did indeed lose to a five-win team that quit on its season weeks ago is not the least bit concerning to the Patriots and shouldn’t be for anyone else either. Concern level: This.
Choice 3: The Patriots wanted to win but they were going to do it on their very specific terms. If they did win, terrific. But if they didn’t, they were very prepared for that eventuality, having left two of their best defenders at home and running an offense ripped from the 1940s. Concern level: This.
Did you go with 3? Tell me you went with 3. Because it had to be 3.
Tom Brady practically announced it was 3 on Wednesday during his press conference when he was asked about home-field advantage and said, “I think it’s better to win this game than to lose this game because you obviously love to always play at home because of communication and so forth. But whoever wins in the playoffs is the team that plays the best on that day, not whether home or away. It’s going to be who plays the best.”
Sunday, with an exasperated smile, Brady said something similar when asked about the fact the Patriots are stumbling into the playoffs.
“We just gotta play well two weeks from now,” he said. “That’s all that really matters. It’s gonna be one game, we gotta play well. That’s what our whole season’s gonna come down to. Nothing over the last six weeks is gonna matter. Nothing over the last 16 weeks is gonna matter. What’s gonna matter is how well we play in two weeks and we gotta play as well as we can.”
Allow me to take some liberties and expand on what I imagine Brady would have liked to say . . .
“If you want to be stupid enough to think that crap-ass team beating us today is going to have lasting impact, have fun with that. But we aren’t ‘us.’ We haven’t been ‘us’ since Julian left. I don’t know if we’ll ever be ‘us’ again this year -- probably we won’t -- but I think we’ll be closer to ‘us’ when we play whatever passes for an AFC playoff team this season waddles into Foxboro. So we’ll take our chances then. I’ll also tell you this: if I see anybody affiliated with our team peeing down his leg because now we may have to go out to Denver with a chance to get to the Super Bowl, then s***, I don’t even know if I won’t to go to the Super Bowl with a team like that. Because we can kick their ass too. Here. There. Foxboro High. We’ll be fine because we have a coach who knows how to go to the whip better than any coach you’ve ever seen. And believe me, he’s going to the whip now. Not guaranteeing anything. But I’ve played in almost 250 regular-season games and this one probably comes in around 239 in terms of being representative of who we are and what we can do. We left Hightower at HOME, for God's sake! And Jones. And we gave the ball to Steven Jackson -- bless his soul -- 14 times and let Diamond Jimmy finish the game. It wasn’t that we didn’t want to win. It was that we didn’t have the horses. So we scuffled along and hoped we’d pull it out. We didn’t. But I’d still caution you to not bet against us in two weeks. Or ever.”
Here’s the issue, though. Will the Patriots be able to shake loose from the Great Post-Thanksgiving Swoon once the injured guys get better?
By how much do they improve defensively when Hightower, Jones, Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung and Rob Ninkovich take the field with two weeks of healing behind them?
Offensively, will the return of Edelman and the physical improvement of Danny Amendola give Brady more options, and will the return of Sebastian Vollmer help give him more time?
That proposition is more dubious.
The dropoff has been so precipitous and the current situation is so bleak -- especially in terms of protection and run-blocking -- that the return of Edelman probably won’t be the magic bullet we all thought it would be a few weeks ago. That the Patriots could employ the game plan they did Sunday and then -- when they have Brady drop back for the first time all day -- practically turn Ndamukong Suh loose is incomprehensible.
That would be one of the many things the Patriots “need to work on” as player after player said after the game.
“We need the week to work on a lot of things we haven’t been doing well in the second half of the season,” said Brandon LaFell. “Getting those guys back healthy, that’ll be a big plus, but we still need to work on a lot of things. The guys that are healthy, the guys that have been playing, too many mistakes on offense, defense and special teams. Luckily we got the bye week we can work on a lot of stuff and get better.”
The Patriots have been waiting for the playoff cavalry to come over the hill for a while.
Brady summed it up quite nicely when he said, “We have to play well going forward. We’re at where we’re at based on a lot of things and we have to play well going forward if we want to make anything of our season.”