Commentary

Patriots continue to puzzle

After squeaking out win over Jets, Bill Belichick's team still hard to read

Updated: October 22, 2012, 1:23 AM ET
By Jackie MacMullan | ESPNBoston.com

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- So how should we categorize the New England Patriots' 29-26 overtime win over their division nemesis, the New York Jets, a game that had more twists and turns and tumbles than a pair of Tom Brady tube socks in a Maytag dryer?

How about this: It was one of the most critical -- and most hollow -- wins in recent memory.

The ramifications were obvious. Had New England blown this game after building a 23-13 fourth-quarter lead (which they squandered away before securing the victory in overtime), they would have dropped to 1-1 in the division and 3-4 overall.

That's right -- a game under .500.

As in one game below mediocre, or average, or not very special.

[+] EnlargeTom Brady
Jim Rogash/Getty ImagesTom Brady's fourth-quarter production has come under fire, but the Patriots QB came through when it mattered Sunday.

After seven games, it is difficult to grasp where this football team is headed. The key personnel is nearly the same as a year ago, when New England went 13-3 and made it to the Super Bowl, only to suffer yet another heart-breaking loss to the New York Giants.

These 2012 Patriots do not have the same swagger. They suffer glaring mental lapses, like having only 10 men on the field when the Jets scored their first touchdown. They accumulate penalties like bargain hunters at a yard sale. (Sunday's tally was six flags for 40 yards, but there were others the Jets declined because of advantageous field position.) Scoring suddenly is a bit of a struggle. Closing games has become an adventure; it's as if Alfredo Aceves is on the mound in the ninth inning for the Red Sox.

This is new territory for Brady and coach Bill Belichick, who at one time were an untouchable tandem, the standard by which all coaches and quarterbacks in the NFL were measured. They were all about winning -- dominating, actually -- but now they are almost at the halfway point of a season that simply feels … different.

There's plenty of time for a young team that is clearly a work in progress to get its act together.

In the meantime, it's hard to imagine this version of Foxborough's finest is Super Bowl worthy.

By now you've seen the numbers that have been circulating through the NFL. In the first seven years of his career, Brady was 39-10 in games decided by seven points or fewer. Since 2009, he is 13-12 in games that close, and 1-5 in games decided by less than a field goal.

Last week, in the last five minutes of the fourth quarter against Seattle, Brady was 2-of-7 for 24 yards and no touchdowns. That left him saddled with a Total QBR (ESPN's swanky stat for gauging quarterback success) of 0.8.

It's unfair to lay the blame at the feet of the franchise quarterback. Josh McDaniels has returned as offensive coordinator and the goal has been to establish the run more so the Patriots wouldn't be so predictable. New England appears to thrive in its no-huddle sets, but at other times their attack seems to be devoid of rhythm.

Thankfully, the early inexplicable decision to move away from Wes Welker as a primary target is no longer relevant -- he had eight catches for 66 yards against the Jets, including Brady's longest pass of the night (21 yards). Deep threat Brandon Lloyd, meanwhile, has only one touchdown on the season. Last night, Lloyd was targeted eight times and came up with just one catch for six yards.

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When Sunday's game was on the line, Brady put up these numbers in the final five minutes of the fourth quarter and overtime: 9-of-14 for 95 yards, six first downs and a total QBR of 73.0. In other words, he delivered when his team needed him most.

Asked Sunday night how he would characterize his offense's identity, Brady responded, "It's tough to say. It's tough to say."

The rumbles in the locker room persist that neither tight end Rob Gronkowski nor his powerful sidekick Aaron Hernandez are playing at full strength. They are two of Brady's most coveted targets.

Yet, for all the inconsistencies of the offense, that's really not the crux of New England's most glaring weakness.

If you look up the definition for "anecdotal evidence," you will discover the term is accepted only "in lieu of more solid evidence."

How much more data do we need to declare that the Patriots' secondary is a major concern? Mark Sanchez, among the league's lowest rated quarterbacks (31st out of 33), passed for 328 yards and a touchdown against them. He should have connected on a second TD, to Stephen Hill in the second quarter, who was wide open (and alone) in the end zone, but Sanchez threw the ball so woefully short that Alfonzo Dennard was able to recover and pick it off.

As flawed as the Patriots appear, they still don't have as many shortcomings as the Jets.

After all, New York had the ball, with the game tied, on New England's 18-yard line with 2:01 to play after Devin McCourty fumbled on a kickoff return.

Had the Jets punched it in for a touchdown, they might be the ones boasting the upper hand in the division. Instead, over the ensuing four plays, they lost seven yards and had to settle for a 43-yard field goal.

"I just knew in my heart we had seven right there, I really did, but it just didn't happen for us," Jets linebacker Calvin Pace said.

"There were definitely blown opportunities [in this game]," cornerback Antonio Cromartie said. "We had so many opportunities to win the game. Against a team like New England, you don't want field goals, you want touchdowns."

Ouch. Sounds like the Jets' defense is a little frustrated.

Give the Patriots' maligned defense credit for keeping the Jets out of the end zone on that series. Rookie Dont'a Hightower came up with the biggest play by dropping Sanchez for a 10-yard sack on third down to force them into a kicking situation.

And, in overtime, linebacker Rob Ninkovich, who had a monster game, came up with a game-winning hit and fumble recovery to finally put this emotional roller-coaster tilt to rest.

Defensive captain Vince Wilfork, who remained kneeling on the field for a good 20 seconds after the game ended ("I was tired, man," he said), insisted this is no time to get picky over style points.

"I don't care how we get it: Get a W," Wilfork said. "Like I said, division game, you can't be pissed off with how you won or the things you've done."

He is right. The Patriots don't have time to quibble over how they dispatched of the Jets, especially with a trip to London looming this week.

Weeks from now, when you look at the standings, there will be no asterisk next to this game signifying a flawed victory. Win and move on. That's how you stay alive in the NFL.

The Patriots know that. They were the original "bend, but don't break" warriors.

At this moment, they are a 4-3 team that has issues. Lots of issues. There is plenty of time to correct them. They still have an elite quarterback, a crafty coach and some game-changing players on each side of the ball.

But you wonder if that feeling that something is different will dissipate.

Because right now, it feels like the New England Patriots aren't really that special at all.

Jackie MacMullan

ESPNBoston.com columnist

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