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Patriots must be wary of trap game

Posted by Matt Pepin, Boston.com Staff  November 30, 2012 09:58 AM

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Miami in December. Sounds like the makings of a vacation, right? But for the Patriots this week, it's the eerie calm before the storm.

Bill Parcells left New England more than 15 years ago, but his presence is still being felt. Parcells brought credibility to football in New England, changed the Patriots forever, taught us grocery shopping and that you are what your record says you are. Parcells also taught us that there were no easy games in the NFL, a belief that helped produce a term we still use today.

Trap game.

Now maybe you believe in such things and maybe you don't, but this much is indisputable: entering the Patriots' Week 13 matchup at Miami against the Dolphins, all signs point to a letdown. The Patriots have won five straight and scored a whopping 108 points in their last two games. By the time Sunday rolls around, they will not have played in 10 days. Awaiting them is a heavyweight doubleheader against Houston (Dec. 10) and San Francisco (Dec. 16), primetime affairs against arguably the best team in each conference.

All the ingredients are there.

And rest assured that Bill Belichick knows it.

"Right now, I don’t really care too much about some other year or some other week or some other week later on this year," Belichick told reporters this week when asked to reflect on his accomplishments as a coach. "Those are pretty insignificant right now. I think we need to try to take care of the business at hand and that’s the Dolphins. So, all the rest of it, there’s a time and place for that some other time."

We've heard that before, of course. Over and over and over again. During the course of his extraordinary career as coach of the Patriots, Belichick has done an exceptional job at slowing things down, preaching focus, keeping his concentration. That has been especially true during the final month of the season, the Patriots posting a preposterous 45-7 regular-season record (easily the best in the NFL) in December and January since the start of the 2001 campaign.

But Belichick is not whom you should be concerned about.

His players, however, are another matter entirely.

Lest we forget, this is the youngest team of Belichick's tenure in New England, something Globe football writer Greg Bedard noted at the beginning of this season. As such, there have been the requisite growing pains. On more than one occasion this season, Belichick has expressed some concern about his team's rate of improvement, which is to say that the Patriots weren't learning quickly enough. In the secondary, that deficiency prompted to trade for Aqib Talib, who joined the Patriots against Indianapolis in Week 11.

All has been rather rosy in Foxboro since that time, the Patriots posting a 59-24 win over the Colts and, just four days later, a 49-19 victory over the Jets on Thanksgiving. The lopsided nature of those games have led many on the national scene to hike the Patriots in their power rankings, which seems a little silly given an enduring truth.

Of the teams the Patriots have played this season, only two - the Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks - rank in the top 10 in the league in passing efficiency. The latter club defeated the Patriots in Week 6, which just happens to be the last time the Patriots have tasted defeat.

We all think the Patriots' pass defense has improved in recent weeks. But do we know? And even if rookie Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill hardly qualifies as above average, there seem additional reasons to wonder at least a little about the Patriots entering this game.

For example: after opening the season with a seemingly impressive win at Tennessee, the Patriots returned home for Week 2 and got blindsided by the Arizona Cardinals, now the owners of a seven-game losing streak. Once the Patriots got back over .500 with a win over Denver, they suffered the loss at Seattle. And while the Patriots have since won five straight, there have nonetheless been lapses worthy of consideration.

After the Seattle loss, the Patriots returned home for what should have been a relatively easy win against the Jets; they barely squeaked by. The Pats then traveled to London and throttled the Rams, taking a 5-3 record into a bye week that felt like a chance to refuel, heal up, get focused.

Know what happened next? The Patriots came out of the bye and turned in perhaps their worst defensive performance of the season in a 37-31 win over Buffalo that required a last-second brain cramp from Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick. The Patriots didn't do well with the extra time and continued a pattern of inconsistency that has existed for much of the season.

Whether the Patriots are beyond their heretofore schizophrenic tendencies is open to debate, but this week should give us a far better indication. The Dolphins are a team the Patriots should beat, in Miami or otherwise, in December or September. Even with a win, how the Patriots play in this game might be a good indication of just how far this young team has come this season, particularly with Houston and San Francisco waiting.

In those games, we may very well find out just how good the Patriots are.

This week, we may find out just how much they've grown up.

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Updated: Mar 1, 07:24 AM

About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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