With all due respect to Bill Belichick and Tom Brady and the laudable Patriots Way, some of us simply cannot buy in yet. Not now. Not after yesterday. Not as the Patriots have resumed their march through the regular season against a collection of tackling dummies and blocking sleds, the latest coming in the form of a Philadelphia Eagles outfit that is the NFL equivalent of the 2011 Red Sox.
All of that talent. So little heart. And positively no clue.
And so, in the short term, give the Patriots their due for a 38-20 win over the Eagles yesterday that was hardly so close, New England at one point reeling off 38 of the game's 41 points against an Eagles club that backup quarterback Vince Young deemed a "dream team" and that many believed could win the Super Bowl. Now we know that Philadelphia isn't even likely to be in the playoffs. With Michael Vick, the 2011 Eagles were a terrible waste of talent. With Young, they border on the inept.
But before Patriots loyalists start flipping their lids and taking this as some sort of slight against their cherished team, take a deep breath. It isn't. The Patriots are doing all they can at the moment, which is to say they are beating up on bad teams, which happens to be all they have on their remaining schedule. At the moment, New England has far more to lose than it does to gain, especially after a 14-2 season that went poof the first time the Patriots stepped on the field last postseason.
What this all really has to do with, still, is the New England defense, which, statistically, seems to be improving. In reality, in the wake of games against the immortal Tyler Palko and the wildly inaccurate Young, it is still hard to tell. If you watched yesterday's game with an even remotely critical eye, you'd have noticed that the Eagles had plays to be made -- and that they did not make them.
Example No. 1: With the Eagles already holding a 7-0 early in the first quarter, Young hit DeSean Jackson with a 44-yard gain to the New England 36-yard line. The play should have been a touchdown, especially given Jackson's speed, but Young underthrew the route. Philadelphia ended up getting a field goal on the possession, and a potential 14-0 affair instead rested at 10-0.
Example No. 2: After the Patriots scored consecutive touchdowns to take a 14-0 lead, Young underthrew another potential touchdown, again to Jackson, and was intercepted by Antwaun Molden. The Patriots blew the subsequent chance to score when Stephen Gostkowski missed a 39-yard field goal, but one could not help but start wondering where the game would have been at that moment had Vick been at quarterback.
Example No. 3: With New England holding a 21-10 lead, Young threw what should have been a four-yard touchdown pass to Jackson near the end of the half. Sensing the presence of the fearsome (ahem) Tracy White, Jackson coiled up like a garden hose and alligator-armed one of Young's few good throws. Oops. Drop. Field goal.
Example No. 4: Now trailing by a 31-13 score, Young hit Jason Avant for a 16-yard play to the New England 36 midway through the third quarter. Again, the play could have (and should have) gone for a much bigger gain, but Young threw the ball behind his receiver, forcing a circus catch. Philadelphia nonetheless got to the New England 2-yard line before a fourth-down play call and execution that was positively horrendous, which brings us to...
Example No. 5: Coaching. Despite the absence of Vick and a pass defense that is actually worse than New England's -- think about that -- Eagles coach Andy Reid pulled a Rex Ryan (last December) and tried to engage Brady in a shootout. Philadelphia has actually allowed opposing quarterbacks a higher passer rating this season (89.3, seventh worst in the league) than the Patriots (84.1, 14th), no easy task with a secondary that has included Nnamdi Asomugha, Asante Samuel and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. (As an aside, Philly's safety play is an abomination.)
How Reid survives this year is anybody's guess.
Now, if you want solely good news, here it is: New England's vaunted passing attack appears to be regaining early-season form, particularly against defense that are unwilling (or unable) to get up on New England receivers at the line of scrimmage. A whopping 389 of New England's 457 yards came via Brady's arm or (gasp) legs, as close to a Vick-like performance as Brady is ever going to give. Without question, the Patriots can score.
In the long run, whether that is enough remains to be seen, particularly in an AFC where the balance of power is, in a word, delicate. Consider: the Patriots entered yesterday as the top seed in the conference and throttled the Eagles, yet New England slipped to the No. 2 seed, behind Houston, because the Texans won a game within the conference against the Jacksonville Jaguars. Such is life this season in the AFC, where the margin between the top seeds and the also-rans is decidedly thin.
A few weeks ago, of course, the Patriots were moving dangerously close to the land of also-rans. Today, they are back among the top seeds.
Where they end up, as a result, remains anybody's guess.
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