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Calling for help

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff  December 21, 2009 09:38 AM

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ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- Following an Ambien-sponsored 17-10 win over the Buffalo Bills, the Patriots' long-awaited first road win on American soil, a few of the victorious New England players stood in the cramped, claustrophobia-inducing visiting locker room at Ralph Wilson Stadium fixated on the television in the corner.

It was showing the Miami Dolphins-Tennessee Titans game, which was in overtime. Even quarterback Tom Brady broke stride briefly to tune in to the TV.

Before Titans kicker Rob Bironas lined up for a 46-yard game-winning field goal, running back Laurence Maroney exhorted, "Make it. Make it." Bironas did and helped the Patriots, giving them a two-game lead in the AFC East over Miami and the Jets with two games to go.

This is what the Patriots are now -- a team that relies on and looks for help from others. They got it yesterday.

With 11 penalties for 124 yards, the Bills had enough dirty laundry to make Tiger Woods blush. Both of the Patriots' touchdowns were set up by pass interference penalties, a 43-yarder and a 21-yarder. On the game's opening possession, the Bills had a Fred Jackson touchdown run wiped out by a false start, and had to settle for a field goal. Trailing 17-10 with 3:02 to go, the Bills recovered an on-side kick only to botch it by being offsides.

If the benefaction of the Bills wasn't enough, the Dolphins and Jets provided early Christmas gifts in the form of losses, as both of their young quarterbacks threw away games with three-interception days. The Jets, 10-7 losers to Atlanta, suffered a particularly ignominious demise that included three failed field goal attempts.

The Patriots aren't underachieving at 9-5, as so many have complained. They're overachieving -- with a little bit of help from their foes.

They don't beat the Bills the first time without Leodis McKelvin's foolish decision to take the ball out of his own end zone on a kickoff and promptly get stripped of it, a decision that so angered some denizens of Western New York that they defaced McKelvin's lawn the next day. Baltimore Ravens receiver Mark Clayton preserved a Patriots' win with a brutal drop that had Ravens front-office folks shaking their heads. Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez turned the ball over five times in the Patriots' 31-14 win Nov. 22, leading to 17 Patriots' points and cries for Sanchez to be benched.

Last week in a 20-10 tractor-pull over Carolina, the Patriots benefited from NBA-style superstar treatment, a dubious 30-yard pass interference call set up their first touchdown and an even more dubious roughing the punter call in the fourth quarter gave them the ball back when it looked like the Panthers were going to get it with a chance to tie the game.

A win is a win is a win, as we're so often told. Nuance is viewed as a nuisance in "it is what it is" New England. But Picasso and the guy you hire to paint your living room aren't equals  because both paint. We're used to seeing the Patriots be Picasso, now they're slapping coats of Glidden on the wall.

A banged-up Brady, who completed less than half of his passes (11 of 23), was held to fewer than 200 yards passing (115 yards with a touchdown) for the second straight week and tossed an interception for the fourth consecutive game -- something he hadn't done since 2005 --  admitted the Patriots aren't playing their best football during a time of the season when traditionally they have.

"It has not always been great," said Brady. "I think the positives we take out of this is a road win and a critical third down we hit at the end of the game, something we didn't do this year. It wasn't all good, but certainly it was good enough. But obviously we have to try to find ways to play better."

Maybe, with two games left in the season (Jacksonville and at Houston) it is time to accept the radical notion that the Patriots simply aren't capable of being better, no matter how much fans and media want to believe they are. (For the record, I picked this team to go 13-3 and win the showdown with the Saints.) It's pigskin apostasy in these parts if one suggests such a thing, but the evidence seems to be mounting more and more in that direction each week.

More than a month removed from fourth and 2 it appears these are the real Patriots, not the team that put 34 points on Indianapolis and should have beaten them in their own building. You can't question the Patriots' effort, not even that of Randy Moss, who returned to form yesterday and saved an interception with a great play on a Brady prayer across the middle, but you can question their talent.

Their pass rush is pedestrian; spare me the argument of their six-sack performance against the Bills, whose offensive line is being held together by Scotch tape and rubber bands. They don't have a legitimate option as the third wide receiver. They don't generate chunk yardage out of the running game. They don't beat good teams on the road. They don't put teams away when they have the chance.
 
The Bills were begging to be put out of their misery and all the Patriots, who led 14-3 at the half, could muster in the second half was a field goal. Buffalo felt they buffaloed their chances of winning the game more than they got beat.

The 5-9 Bills outgained the Patriots 241 yards to 224 and New England's longest play was 16 yards. However, Buffalo's 124 penalty yards were the sixth-most penalty yards accumulated by any team in an NFL game this season and the most by a Patriots' opponent since the Raiders racked up 149 yards on 16 flags in the 2005 season-opener, a 30-20 New England win.

"They're a good team anyway, and we can't do what we did today with all the penalties and the mistakes we had to help them," said Jackson.

The Patriots better enjoy the help while they can. It's going to go away sooner rather than later, and if they can't win without it, so are they. 
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The word

Christopher L. Gasper riffs on the news

Dearth

...That's what the Patriots have when it comes to picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, which starts Thursday. After all those years of stockpiling picks the way a survivalist does non-perishables the Patriots have just five picks in this year's draft, thanks to Band-aid trades for Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco and Aqib Talib. Five picks would be the fewest draft picks in franchise history. (Part of that is attributable to the trimming of the draft to just seven rounds in 1994). Further complicating matters is that two of the Patriots' greatest needs are at wide receiver and cornerback, positions where they have sustained draft droughts. With that in mind, I'm convinced the Patriots are going trade back out of the first round of a quanity-over-quality draft where you're just as likely to pick a Pro Bowl player in the second and third round as you are in the first round.

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