Beyond this week rests the midpoint of the 2012 NFL season, at least for the Patriots, who suddenly find themselves at a fitting intersection. The past weighs on them. The future beckons. And New England now seems hopelessly stuck in between.
The New York Giants will step onto the field with the Patriots in a meaningful game for the first time since Super Bowl XLII this weekend in Foxboro, and there is really no point in reliving the events of February 2008. The Patriots already have enough to worry about. New England hasn’t won a postseason game since the AFC Championship win over San Diego that propelled the Patriots to that historic meeting with the Giants, and there is now question again as to whether this team can break that disturbing streak.
This game, this week, is about the Patriots rebuilding confidence, restoring trust, resurrecting hope. The Patriots of recent years have deteriorated into paper tigers, a team that can win any game but the ones that matter most, a trend that began in Glendale, Arizona.
That was nearly four years ago. Bill Belichick has had plenty of time to work on the problem. And the most worrisome thing now is that Belichick and the Patriots seem no closer to a solution.
And so here come the Giants, the perfect test for the Patriots, a mere week after New England was exposed by the Pittsburgh Steelers in a game not nearly as competitive as the final score (25-17) suggested. The Patriots were pushed around and picked apart, the nature of the defeat more revealing than the outcome itself. The Patriots have since bristled at the notion that they are a finesse team, though they have become precisely the kind of outfit they once mocked.
Remember the good old days, when the Patriots salivated at the prospect of luring teams like the Indianapolis Colts into Gillette Stadium on a bitterly cold Sunday in January? We all sang the refrain then. Let’s get 'em in the cold and snow and see how tough they are. We can hack it. They can’t. Largely because of the Patriots’ physical and imposing defense, teams feared coming into Foxborough then. They knew points would be at a premium. And more often than not, they left with their bodies battered and their tails between their legs, served notice that football is ultimately a physical game.
They were dealt the reminder, quite simply, that the Patriots were dealt last week.
As for the Giants, they remain the kind of opponent that will test New England’s perceived weaknesses. The Giants lead the NFL in sacks (as they did in 2007) and have an effective pass defense that has allowed just seven touchdown passes all year. They are vulnerable against the run. New York’s passing attack, meanwhile, is among the most efficient and productive in football, a fact that will put New England’s no-name secondary under continued duress.
And for what it’s worth, the Giants are 23-12 on the road since the start of their 2007 championship season, a mark that places the Giants only percentage points behind the Patriots (24-12) for the best road record in the NFL during that span.
“It’s a real good football team,’’ Belichick acknowledged to reporters this week, adding that the Giants are “well prepared, they’re well coached, they’re disciplined, they’re tough, they’re a physical team and they’re playing very well.”
Maybe some of that is rhetoric.
But much of it is true.
In and of itself, last week’s loss to the Steelers meant little beyond the potential ramifications on the postseason seeding; head-to-head against the Patriots, the Steelers now hold the tiebreaker. What many have mistaken as an overreaction to the Steelers loss is really a reaction to the last four years, a period during which the Patriots defense has deteriorated to the point of wretchedness.
Currently, the Patriots rank a mediocre 17th in the league in scoring defense, a dreadful 32d in yardage allowed. They are sixth-worst in time of possession. The Patriots have just 15 sacks – 22d in the league – which is particularly worrisome when one considers that the 285 pass attempts against them are sixth-highest in the league.
Add that all together and what you get is a reliance on turnovers, something the Patriots exploited last year to the tune of a plus-28 differential for the season. So far this year, they are a plus-2. Had the Dallas Cowboys shown more of a killer instinct than they did in Foxboro a few weeks ago, the Patriots would be 4-3 instead of 5-2, and 4-3 seems like a far more accurate representation of who they really are.
Think about it. At the height of the Belichick era, the Patriots didn’t merely win games. They beat people. Now, more often than not, it feels as if they wait for their opponents to lose. When a team comes out and plays well against them, they have seemed incapable of raising their level of play.
All of this brings us back to the Giants, who, admittedly, are of greater interest this week not because of who they are, but because of where they fall on the schedule. The Patriots are coming off a disappointing performance at Pittsburgh. The Giants seem to match up well with them in many areas. At a time like this, another New England loss – or, more specifically, another poor performance – would further shake our confidence in an organization that set the highest standards from 2001 through 2007, when the we stopped asking whether the Patriots could win a Super Bowl and started to ask (it)how many(end).
In most other places, after all, a 5-2 record qualifies as an excellent start. But here, it in inspires us to wonder whether this team truly has what it takes.
So just imagine what 5-3 will do.
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