Patriots wave ’bye for now; questions not all gone
LONDON - The Patriots enter their bye week having beaten their last two opponents by an aggregate score of 94-7, one in a snowstorm, the other in a foreign land.
So why the reason for concern in Foxborough?
For one, those scores - 59-0 and 35-7 - are much more impressive in a vacuum than they are in reality. The Titans came into New England coming apart at the seams, and the Buccaneers are in midst of a major rebuilding effort. Together, they stand at 0-13.
And for that reason, in many ways it’s hard to get a read on just where these Patriots are at the bye. They’re clearly short of creating the kind of early season magic Indianapolis and New Orleans have. But they’ve also proven to be the most consistent team in their division (which isn’t saying that much), and they have notable wins over the Falcons and Ravens, though they lack a quality road victory to date.
For every positive, you can find a qualifier. For every negative, there is a reason. Which is why they look, at this point, fairly enigmatic.
“We got a little bit of time now to go back and regroup, and work on, certainly, a lot of things we need to work on here,’’ coach Bill Belichick said. “We’ve got a tough game coming up against Miami, and we know the whole second half of the season has challenges from week to week. But we’ll tackle Miami first.’’
That’s just the first leg of a five-week gauntlet during which the Patriots should learn more about themselves than they have over the first two months of the season.
Included are trips to visit the aforementioned unbeaten Colts and Saints. There’s also a home-and-home with the Dolphins, and a third division game, at home against the Jets.
When that run ends, the Patriots will have five of six division games under their belts, and a much better idea if the Colts and Broncos are catchable in the race for home-field advantage.
“We’re gonna enjoy this win and have fun with it,’’ receiver Wes Welker said after Tampa Bay was subdued at Wembley Stadium. “And then we’re back to work on Wednesday. And we’ll have a good week of practice and go into our bye week feeling good about ourselves.’’
Here are some reasons they can . . .
■ Tom Brady’s play got more consistent in the second half Sunday, and for the first time all season he put together consecutive games with a triple-digit quarterback rating. He’s been able to maintain a pretty high level re-acclimating after about a full season away because of his serious knee injury.
Consider: If he had a bad game in years previous, would the same questions have been asked after the Jets or Broncos games? Or is it just happening because people might be watching a little too closely. Too many times this year simple hiccups by Brady have been seen as bad signs.
■Welker caught all 10 balls thrown to him Sunday, in essence supplementing an inconsistent running game with his chain-moving ways. Yes, he’s running routes where the high-percentage throws are going. But he also continues to be one of the league’s top run-after-the-catch receivers. “That’s something I definitely gotta be able to do,’’ Welker said, “or I’m gonna be out of here pretty quick.’’
■The secondary, a pronounced weakness in 2008, is continuing its ascension, and getting younger as it goes. James Sanders seems to have been replaced in the safety rotation by rookie Pat Chung, who took the field when Brandon McGowan moved to slot corner or nickel linebacker in passing situations. Meanwhile, Jonathan Wilhite and Darius Butler were playing in front of Shawn Springs at corner. Add that to the emergence of Brandon Meriweather (two interceptions Sunday) as a playmaker, and it would seem this group will keep improving.
■The offense showed an ability to overcome some adversity, too, consistently digging out of big holes and converting difficult down-and-distance situations against Tampa Bay. They did it even though Randy Moss submitted an uneven performance. They did it often as a result of their own mistakes, with penalties on the offense (nine of them) consistently landing the unit in those spots.
But they did it, nonetheless, showing the explosiveness is still there, further evidenced by the big plays that have come out of storage the last two weeks. And the biggest problems appear to be eminently correctable.
But there are also questions that beating Tennessee and Tampa Bay left unanswered:
■The defense has yet to close out a game without help - the closest instance a fourth-down stop against Baltimore, during which Mark Clayton flat-out dropped a ball that would’ve set up the Ravens inside the Patriots 10 with a first down and a chance to win the game.
■The pass rush remains shaky, more often getting to the quarterback only when the coverage has been outstanding, and with Peyton Manning and Drew Brees on the horizon, that area will be tested.
■The offensive line has been inconsistent protecting Brady, and Sunday struggled just to stay onside and away from grabbing opponents’ jerseys.
So where does this club stand? In good shape, to be sure, with a 5-2 record that came as the team’s best player, Brady, was working himself back to form.
But it also has plenty left to prove, and a run of games that will provide the proper ground to do just that.
“We had a goal coming over here, and there were certainly a lot of distractions for us,’’ Brady said after Sunday’s game. “To get the win, and then to fly home and have a little bit of time off, I think we’ll all reflect on the last seven weeks, and hopefully move forward with better preparation, and better concentration, and go out there and be able to perform better in the last nine weeks of the year.’’
They’ll need to.
At least that much is clear.