FOXBOROUGH — Combining the starts of the last two games, the Patriots have fallen behind by a score of 41-3.
They came back to beat the Jaguars last Sunday after trailing in the first quarter, 10-0. They dug out of a 31-3, third-quarter hole against the 49ers Dec. 16 and tied the game, but lost, 41-34.
Based on records, the 49ers are one of the better teams in the NFL, the Jaguars possibly the worst. That the Patriots struggled with both the last two weeks might have fans nervously pondering the playoffs, when a slow start can easily mean a quick end to the season.
The Patriots have one more regular-season game to improve on that trend, welcoming the Miami Dolphins to Gillette Stadium on Sunday for a 4:25 p.m. game. Winning could mean a first-round bye, depending on other results; they’d need a loss by the Texans or Broncos. Losing could mean a more favorable wild-card opponent — the wild-card teams are the fifth-seeded Colts (whom the Patriots beat, 59-24) and sixth-seeded Bengals (winners of six of their last seven) — also depending on other results; the Patriots, currently the No. 3 seed, could drop to fourth if they lose to the Dolphins and the Ravens win at Cincinnati.
Either way, getting off to a cleaner, faster start is high on the Patriots’ priority list.
“To go where we want to go, we need to win this game, and we need to start fast, because the last couple weeks we haven’t started all that great,” left tackle Nate Solder said. “It’s a new week, a new game. We’ll be ready to go.”
It’s been less than a month since the Patriots beat the Dolphins in Miami, 23-16. Since then, they destroyed the Texans (42-14), lost to the 49ers, and struggled to beat the Jaguars. The main similarity from the last two games is stumbling out of the gate, which has left the Patriots immediately playing catch-up.
In the team’s first 13 games, they gave up touchdowns on opponents’ opening drives just three times. It’s happened the last two weeks, with the 49ers marching 63 yards in six plays, and the Jaguars needing nine plays to go 78 yards. Against a defense ranked 27th in yards allowed, both teams made it look easy.
“The times where we gave up plays throughout the season we’ve just been so inconsistent: mental breakdown, fundamental technique issue, whatever it may be,” Vince Wilfork said. “[Coach Bill Belichick has] been demanding that we play better, execute better. I think every guy in this locker room is pushing one another, that we go out and finish strong and start games faster. That’ll clean up a lot of stuff around here.”
Three of the Patriots’ four losses have come against teams — Ravens, Seahawks, 49ers — that will make the playoffs. The exception is the first loss, which came to Arizona Sept. 16 in the home opener. The Cardinals won their first four games, but are 1-10 since.
Looking back, the loss to the Cardinals is a bad one. Along with lackluster wins over sub-.500 teams such as the Jets, Dolphins, and Jaguars, plus impressive victories against the Broncos and Texans, have the Patriots become a team that, at times, has a tendency to play up or down to the level of the opposition? Especially against Jacksonville, which was 2-12 going into the game?
“I wouldn’t say we took them lightly, we just started slow, and we’ve got to come out from the beginning and make plays this week,” tight end Aaron Hernandez said. “You’ve got to come to play every week or you’re going to have trouble. That’s the definition of the NFL.”
Added Solder, when asked if the Patriots didn’t take the Jaguars seriously: “I hope not, that’s not how we prepare.”
Preparation, the Patriots say, is the same each week, regardless of the opponent or what its record is. Each team has skilled players and coaches; they’re paid professionals, after all. Overlooking an opponent, especially in the NFL, is a sure way to get beat.
“You really don’t have an opportunity to just come in and not prepare and not be ready to go,” Devin McCourty said. “If that happens, you lose games.
“I’ve been here sometimes and we weren’t ready to really go. You can usually sense that, but as a competitor you don’t believe it, you always think you’re ready.”
They might have been ready against the 49ers and Jaguars. Perhaps not. But two straight weeks of early deficits have left a mark, and provided the team with a specific message going into the regular-season finale, and then into the playoffs. Or specific motto, as Wilfork corrected.
“Start fast and finish strong,” he said. “It’s a good week to start this week: last game of the season, being at home, division game.”