They’re just not that good anymore, really. They’re not good enough to be forgoing field goals and they’re not good enough to win on the road, and they are certainly not good enough to win the Super Bowl.
And so, for once and for all, can we stop with the silly comparisons? Well, they were 7-5 after 11 games in 2001, and they won the Super Bowl. Come on. Well, they had holes in 2006 and they should have won the AFC Championship. Please. Well, they lost Brady for the year and still went 11-5 last season, and it was a fluke that they missed the playoffs. Whatever.
As a friend once said: When things are at their worst, tell yourself whatever is necessary in order to get through the day.
In retrospect and beyond a shadow of a doubt now, this all began in the desert in February 2008. The Patriots were 18-0 and we thought they were perfect, and they must have felt pretty darned good about themselves, too. Then came that defeat to the New York Giants in a game that was truly historic, not solely because it ended the Patriots’ undefeated season, but because it seems to have changed football history in New England.
Simply put, the Pats haven’t been the same since, with or without Tom Brady, who looked and sounded downright distraught following yesterday’s game. (Was it the effect of the defeat or, perhaps, of painkillers?) The Patriots are now 18-12 in their last 30 games beginning with Super Bowl XLII, a winning percentage that places them between 9-7 and 10-6 in a 16-game schedule. If you are what your record says you are, as Bill Parcells taught us, then the Patriots have been a borderline playoff team, at best, for the last two seasons.
"We’ve always been a team that’s been able to overcome situations and play through things," wide receiver Wes Welker told reporters following yesterday’s latest dose of humility, "and we haven’t been able to do that."
One minor correction there. They used to be a team that could overcome situations and play through things.
Don’t cast off these road issues as some sort of fluke. Good teams win on the road, especially in the NFL, and there is no better indicator of team’s potential in any sport than an ability to succeed away from home. At the moment, there are nine teams in the NFL with winning road records: the Colts, Saints, Cardinals, Chargers, Bengals, Vikings, Eagles, Broncos and Packers. If the season ended this morning, all of them would be in the playoffs and seven of them would be division champions.
As for the Patriots, they would be there, too, lumped with a team like the Jacksonville Jaguars. (How many titles have the Jags won again?) A closer inspection of the Patriots’ efforts of late reveals that they are the ultimate pretender, a club that can throttle the sisters of the poor only to be exposed against stiffer competition. Put the Pats up against a halfway decent team, particularly on the road, and they’ll fold like a Velcro wallet.
Let’s give the Pats the benefit of the doubt for a moment and actually include this year’s neutral site win over the Buccaneers as a road victory. Dating back to the middle of last season, the Pats’ last four wins away from Foxborough have come against the Bucs, Bills, Raiders and Seahawks. Since the start of last year, those clubs are a combined 39-73, a winning percentage that translates into somewhere in the neighborhood of a 5-11 season.
And then there is this: In its five true road games this season, the overrated Patriots offense has averaged 19.6 points per game. (The number is 32.5 at home, where the Pats play this week against Carolina.) The defense, too, has been nearly twice as effective at home (14.3 ppg) as on the road (26.2), which certainly suggests that the Pats can kick sand in the faces of their opponents only if they are playing on their own beach.
But wait, there’s more. Of the Patriots’ seven victories this season, five have come against teams that rank among the 10 worst teams in the league in passing offense, at least based on quarterback rating, still the best way to measure any sort of passer efficiency. Simply put, the Patriots have been able to shut down one-dimensional offenses, though they have been able to do it only at home or on neutral territory.
The latest case in point is the Dolphins, who currently rank 24th in the NFL in passer rating. But yesterday, against a Patriots defense that can neither cover receivers nor rush the passer -- now that’s a bad combination -- Dolphins coach Tony Sparano all but spit in the face of the New England defense, ordering quarterback Chad Henne to throw a whopping 52 passes. That was 18 more than Henne threw at Foxborough four weeks ago, a 27-17 Patriots win in which the only Miami touchdown pass was tossed by running back Ronnie Brown.
As for the Patriots’ victories against the Titans, Bills, Jets and Bucs, those teams currently rank a respective 23rd, 25th, 27th, and 28th in passer rating, and the Titans were a good deal worse before Vince Young (who is no Joe Montana) replaced Kerry Collins behind center.
In the short term, the good news is that the Patriots this week will play in Foxborough (yippee!) against a Panthers club that ranks 31st in the league in passer rating. Regardless of whether Al Davis snookered Bill Belichick on the Derrick Burgess deal -- or if DNP-DB Shawn Springs, another offseason acquisition, ever makes it onto the field -- the Pats should be able to win come Sunday, primarily because the Panthers couldn’t throw if they wanted to.
Last week, following his club’s lopsided loss at New Orleans, Belichick himself suggested his team’s problems were fixable, and we should all note that there are still four weeks to play in the regular season. What the coach didn’t say, of course, was the problems could be fixed quickly, largely because New England’s issues range from a predictable, uncreative offense to a very soft, inexperienced defense to a shortage in personnel and some suddenly surprising suspect coaching them that has appearing unorganized and confused.
All fixable problems, to be sure.
But in four weeks?
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