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Temporary relief

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff  December 14, 2009 09:07 AM

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FOXBOROUGH -- If the Patriots are able to put it all together over these final three games and do some damage in the playoffs, we might look back upon Wes Welker picking himself up, pumping his team up, and picking up a first down the next play after nearly being beheaded by Carolina Panthers safety Charles Godfrey the same way we look upon Jason Varitek giving A-Rod a face full of Rawlings in 2004.

If they don't, then it will be a memorable moment in a forgettable season.

It's hard to be swayed in either direction by the Patriots' 20-10 victory yesterday over the Panthers, the ultimate "it is what it is" game. What it is is a win, which is better than the alternative. What it isn't is reassuring.    

Forget what you know about the Patriots under Bill Belichick because we're in uncharted territory here. We're 13 games into the season, and we still don't know exactly where this team is headed. What we do know is that they're not the same old Patriots.

"Not exactly. I've seen better Patriots teams," said Carolina wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad, who was on the Carolina club that lost to the Patriots in Super Bowl XXXVIII.

"I didn't see a streaking Randy Moss. I saw a Wes Welker that played pretty well. We had our opportunities to win the ball game. We didn't capitalize. I've seen a New England Patriot team that had a lot more experience in the secondary and played with a lot more discipline. This secondary is a pretty athletic group, but I think that they make some mistakes that typically you didn't see Rodney Harrison and Ty Law making those kind of mistakes.

"It happens. They were the better team today. They put enough points on the board to win the game, and that's the bottom line in this league."

The bottom line was what Belichick focused on with his fragile team. He tried to accentuate the positives in a victory in which the Patriots overcame three turnovers (two inside the Carolina 25) and a 41-yard touchdown reception by Steve Smith on a busted coverage.

"Not perfect, but a good solid effort," said the coach.  

The effort was neither good, nor solid, but it was enough to end a two-game losing skid and provide temporary relief.

The Patriots allowed the Panthers to gain 5.3 yards per rush, they were a season-worst three-for-11 on third downs, were the beneficiaries of two very questionable and favorable penalty calls that set up scores and got a pair of clutch, fourth quarter, inclement weather kicks by Stephen Gostkowski, who connected from 48 and 47 yards.

If not, they wake up today in a three-way tie for first in the AFC East, and it's time to push the Bob Lobel panic button. It may be time to panic anyway over Moss, who checked out of this game faster than a grocery shopper in the 12 items or fewer line.

The mercurial Moss had more drops, two, than catches, one for 16 yards, which he fumbled at the Panthers' 21, and now has 11 catches for 183 yards and two touchdowns in his last four games, which is about what Texans' receiver Andre Johnson did yesterday against Seattle. More alarming was he didn't seem to respond to a Brady pep talk on the sidelines.

Maybe, former Globie Mike Freeman was on to something afterall.   

Either way, possessing a precarious one-game lead over the 7-6 Dolphins and Jets with three games to go (at Buffalo, Jacksonville, and at Houston) the Patriots need the Real Randy Moss to show up, not the mountebank we saw on Sunday.

After the game, the Patriots discussed how when tied at halftime, they talked about just finishing. To their credit they did, but it was how they started that leaves questions.

You would think that after the maelstrom that developed in the wake of Belichick sending home Moss, Adalius Thomas, Derrick Burgess, and Gary Guyton on Wednesday for being late to a team meeting that the Patriots would have come out focused and fired up, like they did after "Spygate".

Instead, New England came out looking both disjointed and dispirited. If Belichick's intention with his discipline of the non-punctual players was to deliver a wake-up call to his team then collectively they hit the snooze bar.

The Patriots' first six drives went like this: failed fourth-and-1, punt, interception, fumble, punt, punt. Then they got a dubious 30-yard pass interference call on Carolina linebacker James Anderson, who had coverage on tight end Benjamin Watson, that put them at the Panthers' 21. Five plays later, Kevin Faulk burst in from 3 yards out with 1:08 left in the second quarter, and it was 7-up at the half.  

"Really, I don't think our focus was there," said Faulk. "You know I just think we came in at halftime and said, 'Hey, look, this is what we need to do. We got 30 minutes left, let's just play [all] out and see what happens.' "

What happened in the second half was that Welker, who after a 10-catch, 105-yard day has now supplanted Moss as the team leader in receiving yards (1,158) and as a just plain team leader, imposed his indomitable will and ignited the team during a 96-yard drive that ended with Watson's 5-yard touchdown reception, and a Carolina offense that has scored 49 points in its last four games and had an NFL poseur throwing passes in Matt Moore, predictably short-circuited, going 0 for 4 on third down and accumulating just 105 yards.

"I think Tom said it best right there at the end; he said, 'We've played better and lost,' " said Sammy Morris. "They say winning is a cure-all and we were able to pull that one out."

Sometimes winning isn't a cure. It's merely a pain-killer, temporarily numbing what aches you. The Patriots didn't feel the pain yesterday, but that doesn't mean they're fully recovered yet.
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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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