A few weeks back I wrote that the upcoming stretch of games (Pitt through Philly) would be the stretch that tells us what we have for a Patriots team and what we can expect the rest of the season. Well so far they have failed that test pretty handily. After one of the worst performances in recent Patriots memory against the Steelers; the Patriots followed up by ending their 20 game home winning streak against the hated New York football Giants. While many Pats fans are all gloom & doom, doubting if the team will make the playoffs and even questioning if Belichick has “lost his touch” (blasphemy) – I see things a bit differently. While the Pats may have last the past two games, I saw some promising signs.
In the Pittsburgh game – the Pats came out and let the Steelers march down the field on the opening drive as if they wanted them to score and never recovered. Regardless – as poorly as they played, on the road against one of the best teams in the AFC – they still had a chance to win the game on the last possession of the fourth quarter even after the worlds’ worst attempt at an onside kick. Continue on to last week’s frustrating loss against NYG – New England had four turnovers, didn’t look good in general and still managed to be one defensive stop away from pulling off a win against another top tier NFL team. It’s not often that a team can turn the ball over four times in a game and still be within 90 seconds of getting a W. The last drive by the Giants, as depressing as it was, was more of a function of too many simultaneous injuries at key positions to get that do-or-die stop. Chung went out with an ankle injury only to be replaced by Sergio Brown who picked up that atrocious pass interference penalty on the goalline to set up the Giants winning score. Couple that with the loss of both Brandon Spikes and Gary Guyton leading to career special teams ace Tracy White being thrust into action at LB on the most pivotal drive of the game. While White may be an excellent special teams player, a good Linebacker he is not. White was in coverage on both catches by Giants TE Jake Ballard (the long catch down the seam on the crucial 3rd down, and the TD pass to end the game).
As frustrating to watch as the two losses may have been here is what I saw: I saw a team that can play far below their ability level against two of the better teams in the NFL, stand little to no chance of winning, but yet had the mental toughness to battle through their mistakes and stay competitive for all 60 minutes and still manage to give themselves a chance to win games that they didn’t deserve to. And while it’s easy to be discouraged at the recent results, the mental toughness and competitiveness of the team has me very optimistic for the Patriots in the 2nd half of the 2011 season.
Many of the complaints you hear about this team is how bad their defense is, and critics are quick to point to New England’s last ranked Pass Defense as the main reason they can’t win the Super Bowl. If you were to ask anyone that follows football closely who they think the current Super Bowl favorites are; the majority of responses would be the Green Bay Packers – and justifiably so. However, if you were to ask these same fans what team ranks 31st in pass defense; I doubt very few would correctly guess the same Green Bay Packers. New England gives up just over 17 yards passing per game more than the undisputed Super Bowl favorite Packers.
If you were to ask Bill Belichick what the most important stat in football is, he has frequently been quoted saying “Points”. In that regard, Green Bay and New England rank 15th & 16th respectively in opponents Red Zone scoring percentage, the most telling stat for Belichick’s ever important “Points”. So I ask you, why are the Packers viewed as such stronger Super Bowl contenders than New England? Obviously Green Bay’s undefeated record goes a long way to explaining this, and enforces the old adage “Winning is the best Band-Aid”; but it also will hopefully help some of you Pats fans ready to jump off the ledge take a step back and realize things aren’t quite as bad as they seem.
After the next 3 weeks (at NYJ, vs. KC & at Phil), the Patriots have one of the easiest schedules for the remainder of the season. As it stands, NE, NYJ and Buffalo stand tied atop the AFC East at the halfway mark of the season – essentially meaning these next 8 games are a new season in themselves.
Now in terms of today’s ever important game against the New York Foot-fetish Jets; I don’t know where to begin. After getting dominated in Foxboro just over a month ago, the Jets have turned their season around- reeling off three straight wins and fighting back to the top of the AFC East. Of course these 3 wins have come against the hapless Dolphins, San Diego (the game where Phillip Rivers decided to throw the ball away on 4th down with no time left), and the rapidly fading Buffalo Bills. The Jets have gotten back to re-establishing their trademark running game; against teams that rank 14th. 25th and 19th respectively in run Defense. The Patriots on the other hand rank 9th on run D and while I would normally feel good about this match-up, the absence of Brandon Spikes tonight has me very worried. Spikes’ top replacement at ILB is Gary Guyton; and if you’ve read anything on SBS in the past you know just have little faith I have in Guyton’s run stopping abilities. Also, not to be lost in the shuffle is this weeks (somewhat ) surprising release of Fat Albert Haynesworth, who clearly is an asset in the run stopping department. After reading comments from Haynesworth over the past week, it seems to be that he was getting frustrated at lack of playing time and the differences in the Patriots version of the 4-3 defense as opposed to the 4-3 he thrived in his time in Tennessee. While Fat Albert didn’t produce the large sack numbers that some expected of him when he was acquired by the Patriots, he had some strong contributions (when not limited by injuries) and opened up many opportunities for his fellow d-linemen.
Along with the concerns with the Pats usually stout run D, there is obviously plenty to worry about with the often ridiculed pass D. Safety Josh Barrett was placed on IR this past week, leaving an already thin group even further decimated. If Chung is at all limited or can’t go due to his ankle injury, this is an area of major concern, and should provide plenty of opportunity for the talented but underutilized Dustin Keller. The Patriots D made some significant progress last week against the Giants (save for that last TD drive), limiting the Giants on 3rd down conversions and fixing many of the errors that plagued them in Pittsburgh. The injuries have me plenty worried about our ability to stop the Jets and JV Sanchez, but hopefully they can put up enough resistance to give Brady and Co. a chance.
I'll need to write a dissertation on the offense later this week, but I think they'll utilize the running game that helped them thrive in the first match up between the rivals. Of course the Welker/Revis match up is on of the more entertaining ones you can watch as it is a top notch battle of of two of the best at their positions playing at the highest level in a pivotal game. If the Pat's D can fend off the Jets running game, the Patriots should be able to pull of a W in a hostile environment in the slums of North Jersey; but don't get me wrong - the injuries have me very concerned. Win or lose, I'll still remain in high hopes for the rest of the Patriots 2011 season and think they have all the pieces to win the Super Bowl and will do just that.
As for tonight - Patriots 24 - Jets 20