At a crossroads?
FOXBOROUGH -- The Patriots have hit their low point of the season with back to back losses, and that has shaken the faith of many e-mailers to the mailbag.
Sunday's setback to the Jets dropped the team to 6-3 on the season, and kept the 5-4 Jets in the AFC East race. The Patriots will now try to avoid losing three in a row for the first time since the 2002 season, when they actually dropped four straight games to the Chargers, Dolphins, Packers and Broncos.
I don't see the Patriots heading down that same slippery slope this year, but those thoughts run counter to what a lot of fans had to say this week.
On to the questions. ...
What do you think now? 10-6? 9-7? AFC East champs or runner-up? This team has completely lost its identity. Are they a running team? Passing team? How about a turnover team? What is the over/under on how many of Tom Brady's throws get tipped at the line of scrimmage this year? It's time to earn your money Mike. This team is slightly above average and you know it. Tell us the truth!
Vincent Rossi, Peabody
As we've discussed in recent weeks, I'm not going to get in the prediction business. I said 11-5 at the start of the season and let's see how that plays out. It's foolish to keep changing week to week, riding the highs and lows of the season. As for the team, it's no mystery that it won't win many games playing like it has the last two weeks. But am I writing the team off? Absolutely not. For one example, look at the Bears over the last two weeks -- they lose badly at home to the Dolphins, then roar back on the road to beat the Giants this week. I still think the Patriots can get it together, much like the Steelers did last year when they were 7-5 before making their Super Bowl run. I believe there's too much time left to make a definitive judgment on this team. If that means I don't earn my money this week, then so be it. It's just the way I feel.
Ron Borges was the only Globe staffer to pick the Jets, and he wrote an interesting tidbit in Sunday's paper. Since defeating the Panthers in the Super Bowl two years ago, the Pats are 13-0 against losing teams and 4-9 against teams with winning records. Can anyone suggest, without being labeled a fair-weather fan, that the Pats won't make it past the first round again this year, if indeed they make the playoffs at all? The rest of the schedule suddenly doesn't look so easy, does it?
Paul, Hampton, NH
A couple things that I would take issue with here, Paul. First, the record against winning and losing teams doesn't account for what I think is a big part of the NFL -- when you play your opponent. I'd still label the wins over the Bengals and Vikings as records over winning teams because those teams were flying high at the time -- the Bengals at 3-0 and playing at home against a banged-up Patriots team, and the Vikings at 4-2 and having just beaten the defending NFC champion Seahawks and returning home for their first Monday night home game in five years. While those teams have since taken a turn in the other direction, at the time they were playing with confidence and those were tough situations for the Patriots to play in. I'd even argue that the Patriots' performance sent those teams in a funk in future weeks. And as for saying the Patriots won't make it past the first round if they make the playoffs, I think if the last few years have taught me anything it's that things can change fast in the NFL. It's too hard to accurately predict that right now. At 6-3, the Patriots are still in a solid position to be there at the end should they raise their level of play to what I think they are capable of.
I'm worried. This team has no intensity. Haven't had it but in one game all year. In the locker room after this game they are all giving credit to "Eric" and saying they got out coached and out played. WHERE IS THE OUTRAGE, THE FIRE!? It's just not there. It seems they've lost confidence in their coaches, quarterback, management and each other. You may think I'm overreacting but if they don't wake up, they are done. What do you think?
Jeff Phillips, New Ipswich, NH
I'd say the top intensity games were all on the road -- against the Vikings, Bills and Bengals. Three of nine isn't a great percentage. They need more fire. I think the team still has confidence in what it is doing, and realizes that the last two games are part of a long season that includes many ups and downs.
Pats Nation is upside down after the last two performances. After sitting back for a day, and looking at the situation, that game was the Jets' season, and they had two weeks to prepare. With that being said, do you feel the Pats are a championship team that will be playing Indy at Indy for the AFC title game. I still feel that way, and 12-4 and an outside shot at the bye are not out of the question, but it starts at Green Bay this week. Your thoughts?
Sean McLaughlin, Hazleton, Pa.
My thoughts are that the Patriots have hit the low point in their season, and it's hard to look at a potential positive big picture based on the last two games. But a lot can change in the coming weeks, and I still think the team has the parts to be a contender if it can string together more consistency. Based on the last two performances, it's hard to see that happening, but I'm giving them the benefit of the doubt based on their history of improving late in the season under Bill Belichick and his staff. More than anything, I think they need to better define their identity as a physical team that plays smart and comes through in clutch situations. We're approaching the time when championship teams start to make their runs, so let's see how it plays out instead of rushing to judgment.
For two weeks now we have seen the offense pass on first down regularly. With both running backs performing so well and the passing game struggling, why are the coaches insisting on passing during first down?
James Neely, New York, NY
Going back through the stat sheet, I counted 21 passing plays on first down (including a spike on the final drive) and 10 running plays on first down. Some of those passing plays were circumstantial, with the team in its two-minute offense, and some of the passes are essentially running plays because they are quick-hit, short passes. The passing stats: 14 of 21 for 165 yards. The running stats: 10 carries, 58 yards (5.8 avg.). All in all, that looks like solid production across the board on first down. Against the Jets, I thought the more significant problem was third down (3 of 12) and red zone inefficiency (1 TD in 3 trips).
How can you have Tom Brady listed as one of the "downs" for the game against the Jets, but also call out the offensive line as letting up 4 sacks with Brady being pressured throughout. Yeah, Brady didn't look sharp, but who would getting pounded into the mud after most throws? Can't go both ways, either it was Brady or the offensive line, but Brady can't be held responsible for poor pass protection throughout the game, can he?
Brady is a big part of the pass protection as well, as he sets the protection for the entire offense at the line of scrimmage before each play. And when noting the struggles in pass protection, I wouldn't restrict that to just the offensive line; it also includes the backs and tight ends, too. As for Brady, I felt like he missed a handful of throws even when he wasn't under pressure. I don't feel as if he's been as accurate as we've seen in the past, with one example coming in the third quarter when he overshot a wide open Daniel Graham against zone coverage.
While the stats sometimes don't tell the whole story, it seems to me that New England isn't running the ball nearly as much as I would have expected this year. With a relatively healthy Corey Dillon and explosive Laurence Maroney in the backfield I just envisioned an offense that would look to wear defenses down throughout a game and we really haven't seen that. Granted sometimes the defense is going to dictate more passing (i.e. the Minnesota game), however it still seems like there is less commitment to running than there should be. What is your take?
Rick Delello, Lansdale, Pa.
All in all, I think there has been a commitment to the run, but the production has been too inconsistent. I've noticed that the last two opponents have made a concerted effort to take the running game away, bringing an eighth player into the box more often than not -- with safety Bob Sanders leading the Colts with 11 tackles and safety Kerry Rhodes leading the Jets with nine tackles. The Patriots have at times tried to run anyway, but they've had 18 rushes of 2 or fewer yards in the last two games combined, which is a sign of inconsistency. Other times, they've passed to try to soften up opponents, but haven't been successful in getting the defense out of its plan. In terms of the stats, the Patriots have totaled 276 rushes and 304 passing attempts on the season. If they can be more productive in the running game, they can call more plays.
We have a WR problem. The last 2 weeks illustrate what a loss Deion Branch and David Givens are. You really can't replace talent and chemistry like overnight. There are no quality free agent receivers for 2007. All we can do is hope Chad Jackson develops, we get Randy Moss-lucky in the draft ... and somehow chemistry develops between Brady and the other 2. We are finally paying the price for the salary cap losses ... but it was a great ride.
Aroon Acharekar, Orlando, Fla.
I thought the receivers were one of the bright spots in Sunday's game, and weren't a big part of the problem. There is no denying the team misses Deion Branch, but I didn't get the sense that if Branch was on the field against the Jets that the result would have been different.
This offense is just frustrating to watch. Brady seems disinterested, the play-calling is horrible and it seems like the coaches don't want the talented receivers to succeed. So Doug Gabriel fumbled. That stuff happens. Why bench him for the rest of the game and where was Chad Jackson?
Jeff Phillips, Royalston
Gabriel can't hold the ball like that, that's just bad football. While I'd agree that it seemed harsh to bench him for that, the team was consistent on Sunday. I also took note that defensive lineman Marquise Hill didn't play again after picking up an encroachment penalty. The coaching staff appeared to be sending a message that such mental mistakes won't be tolerated. Jackson played solely in one-receiver sets as he obviously hasn't done enough to gain the confidence of the coaching staff and Tom Brady for more playing time.
Maybe it's time to find a real offensive coordinator. The situational play calling has been responsible for all three losses this year. This team is obviously only going as far as the running game will take them, so when you are second and goal at the Jets' 4 yard line you run Dillon until he gets in. Maroney frequently gets caught behind the line, but Dillon rarely does, always pushes the pile. There is no excuse for calling a pass play, getting sacked and settling for the filed goal. I'm losing faith in coordinator Josh McDaniels.
Gregg Vallerius, Collinsville, Ill.
I thought they missed Dillon in the red zone on Sunday as well, but I think this is way too harsh on McDaniels, who was being praised for a dynamic spread attack as recently as Oct. 30 at Minnesota. While I'd agree some of the play calling has been easy to question -- and hasn't allowed the offense to get into any flow -- it's far from the only thing that has led to the team's last two losses. McDaniels is a good, young coach who is still growing into the job.
After watching how the Jets attacked the Patriots, I was wondering why the Pats were not in attack mode? They did not blitz the Jets which may have helped their cause. What is the issue?
Steve, Sorrento, Fla.
I thought the same thing, Steve. The Jets were dinking and dunking down the field and I felt as if the Patriots' defense never aggressively tried to counter-punch that approach -- whether it was by blitzing more, or jamming the receivers, or anything to disrupt their rhythm. That said, at some point, you just have to win the one-on-one battles and I didn't think members of the Patriots' defense did that enough on Sunday.
The Pats have now lost two games in two weeks and after both games, some Pats players publicly said that they were out-coached. First, do you agree with their statements? And second, how do you think Coach Bill is reacting to these public declarations/digs?
Catherine Paszkowska, Brooklyn, NY
I'd give the coaching edge to the Colts and Jets in the last two games, but I don't think that was the only reason the Patriots lost both games. As for how Belichick is reacting to the comments, I think he has a solid finger on the pulse of the team. He meets regularly with the team's captains, so I don't think there are any surprises to him in that regard.
He's considered to be one of the top two quarterbacks in the NFL, but Tom Brady is not leading the team to victories this year as you'd expect a top performer to do. We've all heard the excuses about the need to get comfortable with new receivers but this excuse seems less believable when you consider the success that Drew Brees, Philip Rivers and others have had with receivers that they had not worked with before this year. Tom has been throwing interceptions at critical times instead of leading comebacks. What do you think is going on with him?
Woody Whitcomb, Windermere, Fla.
I think Brady has been uncharacteristically inaccurate, as he's completing 59.2 percent of his passes, which would be a career low. In Sunday's game, I thought he was clearly affected by the Jets' pressure. Then, when he had time to throw, he still wasn't comfortable and missed some open targets. To sum it up, I think the Patriots' offense is particularly complex and it does require some extra chemistry between the quarterback and receiver. Brady has made it look so easy at times in recent years but it looks a lot tougher this year.
Where the heck are the screens? The Pats were one of the best teams in using the halfback screen, and now it seems non-existent. And it further befuddles me because Brady has been under pressure and the screen helps to nullify that. I just don't see why they would not use them more often or at least try one now and then. Any ideas?
Glenn Williams, Brighton
The Patriots haven't been too good at screens this year, with their most consistent success on the tight end screens. Belichick was asked on Monday why the Patriots didn't run more screens against the Jets. "We have an assortment of plays in the game plan every week, misdirection plays, plays like that. You try to get them called at a time when you think they will be effective. I didn't seem to think there was an inordinate amount of those opportunities."
You said earlier in the year you thought the offensive line had three possible Pro Bowlers. My question is: Do you feel that they are that good now?
I'd rate left guard Logan Mankins and center Dan Koppen as the top players on the line right now, but I don't think either is a Pro Bowler just yet.
The time has come for a media member to become tougher with Coach Belichick. His non-info schtick has grown tiresome. Fans are paying hundreds if not thousands of dollars to support this team and the coaches' and players' multi-million dollar salaries. When asked about Gabriel and Seymour not playing in the second half all he says is "we played them all". Perhaps he needs to be reminded that we are the consumer buying his product and deserve at least minimal answers to important questions.
It was obvious to me that Gabriel was benched for his fumble, while Seymour was part of a rotation as the team was shuffling personnel at end, and wasn't that effective anyway when on the field. Of course, it would be great for Belichick to be more forthcoming on things like this, but I think he's made a pact with his players that he won't reveal such things about their situations in the press.
Are the Patriots mismanaging the clock? Against the Jets they called a timeout with 2:15 to play. Why? They only saved themselves 15 seconds instead of 30. If they had let the clock go to the two-minute warning, they could have called the timeout after the next run play, saving 30 seconds, right? If we had another 15 seconds, we might have had a shot to tie the game.
Marc Morrow, Sunrise, Fla.
That was the Patriots' final timeout, called after a first-down play. The Patriots called that knowing it had one more stoppage at the two-minute warning, after the Jets' second-down play. I thought that was the correct way to play that situation.
Mike, Are the Patriots missing Steve Neal more than we think? How long is he expected out?
Ettore Santarelli, Methuen
Neal injured his shoulder Oct. 22 in Buffalo and my hunch is that he's still a few weeks away. With offensive lineman Billy Yates going on injured reserve on Nov. 13, the Patriots are going to bring in Gene Mruczkowski to fill that roster spot, according to Mruczkowski's agent. If Neal was ready, they probably wouldn't bring in Mruczkowski.
I could not help but notice at times how quiet the fans at Gillette seemed on Sunday throughout most of the game. Was it the rain? Was a competitive game unexpected? I was certainly very surprised to see so many empty seats in the first quarter. I'm wondering if the expensive seats have priced out some of the dedicated football fans -- ones who know to be loud when the other team has the ball. Fans that will put on a raincoat, attend, participate -- and actually help the defense play better. I flipped over to the Seahawks-Rams game later -- pouring rain, close game like ours, but the seats were full and the fans were loud. What am I missing?
John Costello, Wall, NJ
I don't think you're missing much, John. Gillette Stadium has been quiet. Those empty seats might have been club seats, where the ticket holders were inside the club instead of out in the rain.