Sunday, November 29, 2009

A little more focus

Even on a Sunday in which the Patriots didn't take the field, they still got good news regarding the AFC East race.

Buffalo shocked Miami at Orchard Park, 31-14, sending the Dolphins to 5-6. At this point, the Patriots lead the division with a 7-3 record, while Miami and New York are two-and-a-half games back at 5-6, while the Bills bring up the rear at 4-7.

The surprising result takes some of the importance off of the Saints matchup tomorrow night. Had Miami done what was expected and won, New England would have had to give New Orleans its first defeat in order to avoid having the Dec. 6 rematch in South Florida be for first place in the division.

Now, even if New England loses at New Orleans, they'll still have a comfortable lead (two games) with five games left. The Patriots could clinch the division with an 11-5 mark, which would allow for two losses to a group of opponents including the Saints (10-0), Dolphins (5-6), Bills (4-7), Jaguars (6-5) and Texans (6-5).

Of course, that doesn't make a victory in the Superdome any less attractive.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Tale of two halves

The New England Patriots are 7-3. As always, there are many ways to look at that.

One is the popular take endorsed by Tom Brady. New England has lost three games, all as a result of playing essentially three halves (out of 20) of bad football.

Three halves? That's 1.5 losses, right? So the Patriots are really 8.5-1.5, and only a game-and-a-half behind Indianapolis, correct? That's not so bad!

Well, the problem is, those three halves are all the second half. The end game. It's a disturbing pattern, a worrisome trend.

Against the Jets in the Meadowlands, the Patriots had the lead at halftime, and allowed Mark Sanchez to bring New York back. At Denver, against a then-undefeated Broncos team, New England had a 17-7 lead before watching Kyle Orton save the day in overtime.

And of course, 10 days ago, the Patriots led the Colts by 10 at halftime, and 17 in the fourth quarter, before...

...I won't finish that sentence. The point is, Tom, you're mathematically right and logically incorrect. The Patriots, two years after being the ultimate go-for-the-jugular team, simply aren't going for the kill when they've achieved the stun.

If you're ready to dismiss that, maybe a history lesson will convince you otherwise. The 2002-2008 Patriots were 66-1 when leading at halftime. Sixty-six. And one.

This year? Six-and-3. And of those wins, games against Baltimore, Miami and the rematch with the Jets came oh-so-close to going in the loss column.

Cue the Vince Lombardi tape: "What the hell's going on out here?"

Of course, you can't expect teams losing at halftime to throw in the towel. They're NFL teams. They find out why they've been getting stomped on for 30 minutes and they correct it. They adjust. And they play harder and better in the next half.

But that's not always what happens with the Patriots. Take last Sunday's game. The Jets were emotionally and physically finished. They didn't show up. And yet, they were a few Sanchez implosions away from pulling off a comeback that would have - this is not exaggeration - crippled the Patriots' season.

Bright spots? The Patriots are 7-3, and notice the 6-3 record mentioned above. The Patriots often come out of the gates hard, and it's easier for a coach to teach his team to keep the foot on the gas than teach his team to climb out of a hole.

And with a matchup with the Saints coming up, the Patriots have a golden opportunity to enforce themselves as a power, even despite these shortcomings.

As Bill Belichick has said, the season starts after Thanksgiving. And the Patriots will have to improve their own second halves to make noise in the second half of the season.