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Bob Ryan

A good unhappy ending?

By Bob Ryan
Globe Columnist / December 5, 2011
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FOXBOROUGH - A week ago Bill Belichick was so ebullient, so upbeat, so expansive, so downright gabby, at the conclusion of the Eagles game, that you half expected him to say, “C’mon, guys, don’t you have any more questions?’’

To tell you the truth, it was a bit unnatural. It wasn’t, you know, him.

Yesterday afternoon we got our old Coach Bill back, thank God. He lurched his way through a tense, uncomfortable, unproductive postgame media session, at least two-thirds of which consisted of mumbling that may or may not have been in English.

But if I heard him correctly, the first thing he said was, “We did some good things, but, obviously, we didn’t like the way we finished the game. It was disappointing, but we’ll work on that.’’

Turning a 31-3 game with a little more than 19 minutes remaining into a 31-24 game that requires one of your guys to secure an onside kick to preserve the lead with 36 seconds left will sour a coach’s disposition, no question about it. But if it serves to bring back the Coach Bill we all know and love, then we should take that development as a positive. If the Patriots are going anywhere this year, they need the real Coach Bill leading them, not some cheery impostor.

With this victory over the winless Indianapolis Colts, the Patriots are now, tiebreaker included, three full games up on the Jets with four to play, which brings to mind one of the other intelligible things muttered by the irascible mentor.

“Good to be 9 and 3,’’ he said. “That puts the team in decent position here.’’

Right you are, coach, and by the way, congratulations for another one of your defensive backfield coups. With Patrick Chung again an inactive player, versatile Matthew Slater (whose primary job descriptions read “wide receiver’’ and “return man’’), played just about the entire game at safety. He even forced a fumble with an artful strip of Delone Carter, the turnover leading to a touchdown drive that made it 31-3 with 4:13 remaining in the third quarter.

“It was exciting to help out,’’ Slater said, “and it was more exciting for Tom [Brady] to drive the team down the field and capitalize on it.’’

As has so often happened this season, when the game was over there were questions and concerns, which, while they can’t be said to have spoiled the victory, did leave fans with plenty to worry about as they contemplate January games against the AFC elite, as opposed to this one against the Colts and remaining games against Washington, Denver, Miami, and Buffalo.

And judging from the coach’s postgame demeanor, he’s got ’em, too. In fact, no one on earth is more realistic about the state of affairs for the New England Patriots than Bill Belichick.

In this case, it wasn’t the numbers put up by Dan Orlovsky, as gaudy as they were, that were so bothersome. The former UConn Husky quarterback was 30 for 37 for 353 yards and two touchdowns. His one interception required a truly spectacular athletic move by Jerod Mayo. This was no Tyler Palko deal. At no point did Orlovsky look as if he didn’t belong out there.

No, it was the fact that a three-TD comeback leading to a potentially damaging onside kick reflected shoddy play on both sides of the ball. Two 90-plus-yard TD drives was one thing. Back-to-back fourth-quarter three-and-outs didn’t exactly protect the Patriots’ defense, which spent far too much time on the field, starting with a first quarter in which the offense had the ball just once.

“We talk about playing 60 minutes all the time in pro football,’’ said cornerback Kyle Arrington. “That didn’t happen today.’’

“Yeah,’’ said Brady, “we played good for 45 minutes and then didn’t do anything offensively in the fourth quarter, so we’ll hear all about that tomorrow.’’

No. 12 threw for 293 yards, a total that included career touchdowns Nos. 290 and 291, each to Rob Gronkowski, and which also included No. 292, again to Gronkowski, until the play was ruled a lateral upon review. So Gronkowski got his first career rushing touchdown, as opposed to a record-setting (for tight ends) 14th reception TD. With 13 TD receptions and four games left, I like his chances to break the record.

OK, the Patriots could have ended better. But let’s take a brief timeout to talk about the part of the game when they went from a 3-3 situation to that 31-3 lead. They must have done something right yesterday.

Try this: starting with the final possession of the half, they scored touchdowns on three straight possessions. It began when the Colts gave the ball back to them via a punt to the New England 36 with 1:34 left and two timeouts. Eight plays later BenJarvus Green-Ellis was convoyed into the end zone from the 1. What a shock: Brady orchestrating a drive to end the half. What’s that? Five hundred? Six hundred? I’ve lost count.

Operating from the no-huddle, where he has no peer (except perhaps that Manning guy watching from the sideline), Brady went pass-pass-pass-pass-pass-pass and then 21-yard TD pass to The Gronkster. When he got the ball back following the Slater-induced fumble, he took them 66 yards in nine plays, culminating in the aforementioned lateral/pass/whatever to Gronkowski, who, thinking it was the record-setting reception, didn’t even spike the ball.

At this point there was no other thought than, “When will we see Brian Hoyer?’’

And we did see him, on the next-to-last Patriots possession. Three plays and a punt later the Colts were embarking on a five-play, 90-yard scoring drive, which was not exactly what Coach Bill had in mind.

At such times the very last thing on earth he wants to do is answer questions from the media. But today he’ll be fine. That’s the way it works around here.

The bottom line for you and me is that they’re 9-3, en route to 13-3 and a No. 1 seed. Will they have the kind of defense needed to make a serious Super Bowl run? That’s a question we’ll be asking right up to the kickoff of the first playoff game.

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