LONDON — After a few weeks of saying there was plenty of time left this season to figure out what was ailing them and make the proper adjustments, the Patriots on Friday changed their tune a bit.
Heading into their eighth game of the season — the midway point — there is certainly time to improve, as the Patriots showed last year when they lost in Weeks 8 and 9 but did not lose again until the Super Bowl.
But things don’t look quite as good for the Patriots now as they did at this point last year: the defense, particularly the pass defense, has not improved, and the offense, the team’s strength for a few years, is having its own struggles.
The Patriots have let fourth-quarter leads slip away, and needed a last-second field goal to force overtime in last Sunday’s win over the Jets.
On top of that, they’re dealing with injuries to several key players, including Logan Mankins, Aaron Hernandez, Rob Gronkowski, Patrick Chung, and Steve Gregory.
They’ll have their bye week after returning from London, a time for the injured to heal and for everyone to rest, but there is still the matter of playing the St. Louis Rams, and no one is taking them lightly.
On Friday morning, not long after the Patriots arrived at the Grosvenor House Hotel, Tom Brady called Sunday’s game “critical.”
“You go this long and guys are playing with bumps and bruises and certainly nobody’s 100 percent at this point,” Brady said. “Everyone looks at that bye as a point where, ‘Man, if we could just get to the bye week, get a little healthy and we could hopefully put together a great stretch of games.’
“So you look at this game as a very critical point and critical game in our season where if we can just get to 5-3, we feel like we’re at a decent point where we’ve learned a lot from the last eight games. We’ve learned what we do well, we’ve learned the things that we don’t do so well.”
Jerod Mayo, another team captain, echoed Brady’s thoughts about the importance of Sunday’s game.
“It is very critical. We always talk about ‘stringing them together’ and this is a time where we have to start stringing things together and we haven’t fared too well against NFC West teams,” Mayo said. “So hopefully we can get this one.”
The Rams have a top-10 defense (ninth in yardage and points allowed). Offensively, they are 16th in rushing and 24th in passing as the line has had its share of issues (Sam Bradford has been sacked 21 times, third most in the NFL) and leading receiver Danny Amendola has missed the last three games with an injured collarbone. He is listed as questionable.
The Rams have beaten the Seahawks and the then-undefeated Cardinals, teams that beat the Patriots. The other win was against the Redskins.
Brady has mentioned New England’s record several times this week, clearly not satisfied that the team continues to have problems, such as fourth-quarter scoring.
“I’ve said a few times that our execution hasn’t been the best in those [late-game] situations,” Brady said. “We’re 4-3. We’ve had some where we’ve done better than others there in the fourth quarter of these games.
“We had a pretty good fourth quarter last game. We showed some resiliency, a bit of toughness. I hope we learn from that and do a better job going forward. That’s when the defense makes it tough on you, when they really have to tighten the coverage and tighten the pass rush and try to get the ball back.”
Left unsaid is that his defensive teammates haven’t done those things late in games, which is why double-digit leads have disappeared.
After playing five of their first eight games on the road, the Patriots return from the bye with home games against the Bills and Colts. Then it is back on the road for back-to-back division games, against the Jets on Thanksgiving and in Miami 10 days later.
It’s manageable for the Patriots, and a winning streak could come in handy with the AFC’s top team, Houston, and a dangerous 49ers team coming to Gillette in Weeks 14 and 15.
If the Patriots are to begin to right their listing ship, it starts Sunday against the Rams at fabled Wembley Stadium.
“You can move forward with mental toughness and playing Patriot football,” Brady said about the second half of the schedule. “The way we need to [play] the rest of the year, when football season really gets going.”