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December presents no-win scenario

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff December 3, 2009 11:51 AM
When the weather gets colder, the daylight gets shorter and the shopping lines grow longer, the Patriots usually get better.

Just like the retail industry, the Patriots tend to get their best results in December. Since December of 2003, the Patriots have the NFL's best record in the year's final month (24-2). They've won 12 straight games in the 12th month, dating back to 2006.

The last team to hand the Patriots a December defeat was their first opponent of this month, the Miami Dolphins, who played gridiron Grinches by shutting out the Patriots' 21-0 in Miami in 2006. After that game the Patriots didn't taste defeat again until losing the AFC title game to the Colts.

History shows that the Patriots always find a way to win in December. I'm here to tell you that this December New England, still reeling from the 38-17 undressing it suffered at the hands of the New Orleans Saints on Monday night in the Superdome, can't win.

Oh, the 7-4 Patriots have a very good shot of running the table and winning their final five games, four of which will be played this month, to finish 12-4. In fact I expect them to do so, starting this week in South Florida against the 5-6 Dolphins, a victory that would basically put a nice tidy ribbon on the AFC East division title.

However, dominating December isn't going to be enough to convince the football cognoscenti that these Patriots are truly championship driven (Did former Celtics boss M.L. Carr copyright that phrase? He really should have.) this season.

When it comes to proving their mettle as a team capable of lifting the Lombardi Trophy, the Patriots are in a no-win situation from here on out in the regular season.

December might be a month to remember for the Patriots, but there is not a team on the schedule remaining that will allow the Patriots to allay fears about their fitness as a title contender or make everyone forget the collapse against the Colts or the dismantling at the hands of the Saints.

That's why despite Tom Brady's pronouncement that the mourning period for the New Orleans loss was over and all the rhetoric about the team simply moving on to this Sunday's game against the Dolphins, there was a feeling of loss in the locker room.

Downing December opponents Miami, Carolina, Buffalo, and Jacksonville and then ringing in the New Year with a win over the Texans isn't going to be enough to present a convincing case that the Patriots are an elite team. Even worse, a loss this month or to any of the final five opponents would merely reinforce the belief held by some that the lofty expectations for this team are based more on the uniforms they're wearing than the way they're playing.

It's the ultimate no-win scenario.

As of today, the Patriots will only play one team with a winning record this month and that's the 6-5 Jacksonville Jaguars, a team that lost 41-0 to the Seattle Seahawks earlier this season and last week made the San Francisco 49ers look like a playoff team in a 20-3 defeat.

The Saints game was the Patriots' last chance to make a statement that they belonged at the NFL's head table with the Colts, Vikings and Saints. Now, they're simply among its hoi polloi until the playoffs.

The Patriots can't simply take solace in their past December success and say that will spur a revival.

"No, not with the way we've been playing lately, no," said wide receiver Wes Welker. "We need to make sure that we're coming out and preparing the way we need to and finishing off games and all those other things that take place with good football teams. The answer to that question is no right now, but hopefully we get to that point."

We all said that New England's five-game stretch that was bookended by games against Miami and had contests against Indianapolis, the Jets and New Orleans in between, would tell us a lot about the Patriots. What it has told us is that it's still not clear if this team is good enough to go to or win a Super Bowl or not.

They understand that. Welker -- as quick to the point as he is on one of his routes -- admitted that he's not surprised that New England is not currently considered an elite team in NFL circles.

Safety Brandon Meriweather (appropriately named for any December discussion) said the perception of the Patriots is only an issue outside of the locker room.

"Whether you're an elite team or not at the end of the day you got to win games," said Meriweather. "People can say whatever, but if you keep winning then you keep going."

New England can still finish the five-game mid-season gauntlet with a winning record by escaping Miami with a win over the always dangerous Dolphins -- at least they'd get the real road win monkey off their backs -- but even a 3-2 record with a road win, but without a win over Indy or New Orleans, rings a little hollow in Fort Foxborough.

Doesn't it?

"It don't matter. It really don't matter. My goal is not to beat one team. My goal is to make it to the playoffs," said Meriweather.

The Patriots have had their street cred diminished, and they won't be able to get it back until the playoffs, and last time I checked those don't start in December.

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The word

Christopher L. Gasper riffs on the news

Dearth

...That's what the Patriots have when it comes to picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, which starts Thursday. After all those years of stockpiling picks the way a survivalist does non-perishables the Patriots have just five picks in this year's draft, thanks to Band-aid trades for Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco and Aqib Talib. Five picks would be the fewest draft picks in franchise history. (Part of that is attributable to the trimming of the draft to just seven rounds in 1994). Further complicating matters is that two of the Patriots' greatest needs are at wide receiver and cornerback, positions where they have sustained draft droughts. With that in mind, I'm convinced the Patriots are going trade back out of the first round of a quanity-over-quality draft where you're just as likely to pick a Pro Bowl player in the second and third round as you are in the first round.

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