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Adjusting expectations

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff  January 4, 2010 10:33 AM

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HOUSTON -- Now what?

That's the question today for the New England Patriots in the aftermath of a horrible trip to Houston that saw them not only blow another second-half lead in an opponent's abode, but also saw wide receiver Wes Welker blow out his left knee four offensive snaps into a game that the Patriots didn't need to win.

If the Patriots were a car involved in an accident, the insurance adjuster would have declared them a total loss in Texas yesterday. They lost the game to the Texans, 34-27, they lost any momentum heading into the postseason, and they lost their leading receiver.

The last time the Patriots came to Houston they celebrated a Super Bowl title, confetti raining down from the Reliant Stadium roof. This time it felt like the retractable Reliant roof crashed down upon them, the sky falling on their season.  

What we now have to wait to find out is whether they'll been a Houston hangover and, if so, it will be a quick over and out for the Patriots in the playoffs, which start for New England this Sunday at home against the Baltimore Ravens.

If the Patriots win that playoff game, the season should be considered a success. It's time to adjust expectations. It turns out it was Bill Belichick and Tom Brady building a bridge to the future and not Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein.

It's pretty clear right now that the Patriots are facing a Mount Washington-sized uphill climb to make it to the Super Bowl, and that's the standard around here, fairly or unfairly. You can talk about belief in Belichick and Brady, faith in a defense that is still finding its identity, and the Patriot Way, but what tangible evidence have we seen or can this team point to this season that leads one to believe they will be playing in South Florida on Feb. 7 in Super Bowl XLIV?

None, not after yesterday.

If that's an overreaction to yesterday's events, then so was the hallelujah chorus that followed their 35-7 bludgeoning of the Jacksonville Jaguars, who by the way lost to the mighty Cleveland Browns yesterday.

As the No. 3 seed in the AFC playoffs, the Patriots host the Ravens in Friendly Foxborough, where they went 8-0 this season. Then it's road-tripping the rest of the way, unless the top-seeded Colts get upset in the divisional round by the winner of the Cincinnati Bengals-New York Jets rematch.

In order to play for the Lombardi Trophy, the Patriots are going to have to do something they didn't do yesterday and haven't done all season -- beat a team with a winning record in its own stadium.

"We got to do that," said cornerback Leigh Bodden, who sat out yesterday's game. "You can't think about it. You can't think about record in the regular season. It really doesn't matter anymore. Everything starts over. So, we got a new season ahead of us, so that's all we can focus on."

This is how the rest of the NFL sees the 10-6 Patriots entering the NFL's new season -- flawed, vulnerable, and beaten up.

Even without Welker and with Brady playing with a broken finger, a debilitating rib injury, and a sore shoulder, the Patriots have enough to get by a Baltimore team that has a habit of shooting itself in the foot. There was no better example of that than the first time these two teams played, a 27-21 Patriots' victory aided by a pair of roughing-the-passer penalties that set up New England scores and a brutal drop by Baltimore receiver Mark Clayton inside the Patriots' 10-yard line when the Ravens were driving for the possible winning score.

After the Ravens, the road to the Super Bowl looks impassable -- or quite passable if you're a Patriots' opponent. If the Patriots win, they have to go to San Diego to face the Chargers, winners of 11 straight. Philip Rivers is eavesdropping on the Brady-Peyton Manning-Drew Brees discussion of best NFL quarterbacks.

The Chargers, who had the fifth-best passing attack in the NFL, are no longer about the legs of LaDainian Tomlinson. They ride the right arm of Rivers and his big-play targets -- tight end Antonio Gates (79 catches for 1,157 yards and 8 touchdowns), and a pair of 6-5 wide receivers in Vincent Jackson and Malcom Floyd, who both averaged 17.2 yards per catch this season.

The Patriots have not fared so well this season against prolific passers.

The Texans, Colts, and Saints ranked No. 1, No. 2, and No. 4 respectively in the NFL in passing yards per game this season (the Patriots were No. 3). Combined Matt Schaub, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees completed 66 percent of their passes (70 of 106) for 1,001 yards and 11 touchdowns with three interceptions against New England. Their respective offenses all topped 400 yards -- the Texans went for 439 yesterday, the Colts had 407, and the Saints had 480 in the Beatdown in the Bayou -- and scored 34, 35, and 38 points, respectively.  

There is no reason that Rivers and the Chargers couldn't do the exact same thing.

Offensively, Welker's loss as the slot receiver is devastating. That's obvious. What Welker was able to do for the Patriots was supplement their pedestrian running game. Welker was the Patriots' de facto running game, as evidenced by his 721 yards after the catch, which ranked second in the NFL, behind only Baltimore running back Ray Rice.

While converted college quarterback Julian Edelman is a nice Welker replica, he's not the real thing, and it's unfair to ask him to be. Edelman's 10 catches for 103 yards were as much a function of how much the Patriots rely on the slot receiver position as they were of Edelman's potential as a pass catcher. He was targeted 15 times in the game.

The Patriots got squeezed at times on offense this season because they were a predictable two-receiver offense with Welker and Randy Moss. Now, entering the playoffs they're a one-receiver offense.  

The Patriots season didn't end yesterday. It just felt that way. But after a Texas-sized setback it doesn't look like this season is going to end in the Super Bowl.
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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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