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As Patriots begin anew, have they improved?

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  October 13, 2010 09:58 AM

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patsravens.jpg Baltimore alone would have been enough. The Ravens came into Foxborough last season with a battered quarterback and still proceeded to throttle the Patriots in one of the more humbling losses of the Bill Belichick era. Now the Ravens are coming back. The game would have provided a status report, anyway.

And yet, as the Patriots prepare to take the field on Sunday, there are now so many other reasons to watch. Randy Moss is gone. Deion Branch is here. The Patriots are coming off an enormously one-sided victory at Miami on Oct. 4, a game in which the Patriots outscored the Dolphins by a whopping 35-0 margin in the second half. Based on the spirited reactions of Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady at the end of that affair, the Patriots did more than win a legitimate road game that night. They reclaimed a measure of their aura, of the kind of situational playmaking that made them the premier franchise in the league for the better part of this millennium.


This is where the Ravens come in, particularly after a Moss saga that conveniently dominated bye week. Based on a poll conducted right here at Boston.com, nearly 70 percent of you oppose the trade. The obvious inference is that the Patriots offense just got worse, which may or may not be true. What we know for sure is that the Patriots offense changed, that it lost some explosiveness, and that the new Pats are due to face a club this weekend that almost everyone regards as a legitimate Super Bowl contender in the wake of the Anquan Boldin acquisition and a recent Ravens win at Pittsburgh.

Six weeks from now, maybe we’ll have a different opinion of the Ravens. But at the moment, Baltimore looks to be among the AFC’s elite, right there alongside the Steelers and the Jets, the last of whom whipped the Patriots by a 28-14 score in a Week 2 affair during which the Jets outscored the Pats in the second half, 18-0.

Following that loss, Belichick spoke of the Patriots’ need for better efficiency, an issue that seems to be at the heart of the Moss deal. Brady has thrown two interceptions this season, both coming against the Jets. Both were on passes intended for Moss. If you believe in such metrics, Brady’s quarterback rating when throwing to Moss this season was a rather putrid 64.2; throwing to anyone else, it is a sparkling 117.6. Numbers like that certainly suggest that Moss hurt Brady more than he helped him, at least with regard to efficiency.

Where the absence of Moss will cost the Patriots, presumably, is in the red zone. Last season, the Patriots ranked 12th in the NFL in red-zone offense. This year, they are tied for ninth. Moss is a big target with whom Brady connected on a 7-yard scoring slant at Buffalo and whose size always made him a candidate for a jump ball in the corner of the end zone. Belichick obviously feels that the Patriots now have other red zone options – tight end Rob Gronkowski perhaps chief among them – though it is important to stress that the Patriots offense had just one true touchdown drive in the win over the Dolphins, a game in which Moss (targeted once) was clearly not part of the game plan.

In theory, we all understand how this is supposed to work. The Patriots might score less on offense, but they will keep the ball longer. In the Miami game, they had drives of 16, 13 and 12 plays. The obvious hope is that the Patriots will win the weekly special teams battle (which they generally have been doing) and that they will protect a defense that is clearly still developing.

The problem, of course, is that the Moss move does not really address the efficiency of the defense, despite benefiting from turnovers against the Bills and Dolphins. Whether the Patriots truly caused those teams to give up the ball is highly open to debate. Ryan Fitzpatrick made a pair of horrible throws that resulted in the interceptions by Patrick Chung and Brandon Meriweather. After the first quarter, Chad Henne spit the bit in Miami.

But in five of the next six games – a stretch that begins with a group of Ravens pass catchers that includes Boldin, Derrick Mason, T.J. Houshmanzadeh, Todd Heap, and Ray Rice – the Patriots defense will face Joe Flacco, Philip Rivers and the Chargers, Brett Favre and the Vikings (including Moss), Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers, and, finally, Peyton Manning and the Colts.

Between now and the end of that stretch, the Patriots are still going to have to stop somebody, regardless of whether the defense is off the field for longer stretches. Moss and Branch will have no real bearing on that. So far this year, the Patriots defense ranks dead last in the league in third-down efficiency. They rank 30th in fourth-down efficiency and 30th in yards per play. They rank 29th in total defense (based on yardage) and 28th in red-zone defense (based on the percentage of time that opponents score touchdowns in the red zone).

Again, that brings us back to the Ravens, who, in theory, should challenge the Patriots in all areas. Baltimore’s offense has been relatively disappointing thus far, but the Ravens also have beaten the Jets and Steelers, against whom they scored a combined 27 points. (Excluding those opponents, their last two games have produced 24 and 31 points.) Even without Ed Reed, their defense ranks among the best in the conference, particularly against the pass. In the red zone, the Ravens have performed almost as well on offense as the Patriots; defensively, they have been one of the league’s best. On third down, in the entire NFL, the Ravens rank fifth on offense, first on defense.

By the time the Patriots take the field Sunday, nearly two weeks will have passed since the Miami game. A great deal has changed since the Patriots last played in Foxborough. This week suddenly has the feel of an entirely new beginning for this franchise, and the competition now will begin to stiffen. The Patriots have young players on defense, new players on offense, and the Ravens will give us the chance to see if the Patriots are something beyond new.

They will give us the chance to see just how much, if at all, the Patriots have improved.

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About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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