- Mike Reiss, ESPN Staff Writer
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- If you had to pick the greater disappointment for the New England Patriots this season, would it be the offense or defense?
The question might be viewed as preposterous to some when considering we're talking about the NFL's No. 1-rated offense in terms of points, yards gained and first downs.
Still, one could make a strong case against the unit based on expectations. The offense was supposed to carry this team, yet when the opportunity has presented itself to close out games, it hasn't consistently delivered.
The defense, on the other hand, was a unit that looked like it might be ready to turn a more decisive corner, sparked by the infusion of first-round draft choices Chandler Jones and Dont'a Hightower. The D has produced some critical stops, but some of the same old problems have persisted, most notably pass defense in the secondary.
So which one are you picking?
If you chose offense, we won't argue, while also citing Bill Belichick's often-quoted mantra that "stats are for losers." Yes, the offense might rank first in several categories, but it hasn't ranked No. 1 when it comes to delivering in critical situations.
It has been surprising to watch the unit struggle as much as it has at those times, one of the most recent examples coming in Sunday's 29-26 overtime victory over the New York Jets.
At a time when the offense could have put the game out of reach, it instead turned in its worst series of the season -- an offensive pass interference penalty on veteran receiver Brandon Lloyd, followed by a careless Tom Brady pass down the field that was nearly intercepted by Antonio Cromartie. On second-and-20, Stevan Ridley ran for 4 yards, before Brady fired a long incompletion down the left side to receiver Wes Welker.
It was a disaster, with three integral members of the offense -- Brady, Lloyd and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels (a run on second-and-20?) -- contributing to a series in which the offense didn't put up much of a fight.
If not for the defense somewhat holding its ground on the ensuing drive and wide-open Jets rookie receiver Steven Hill providing a gift with a brutal drop on third-and-4, the offense would have had a full week to chew on that miserable stretch of plays. The question of which unit has been more disappointing -- offense or defense -- wouldn't have been much of a debate.
Instead, the offense got a second chance (and third in overtime), capturing enough magic to set up game-tying (43 yards) and game-winning field goals (48 yards).
Those three series pretty much covered the spectrum of what we've seen from the offense this season -- namely some incredibly ineffective play with the game on the line, but also the ability to turn it on quickly and look unstoppable.
We know they have it in them. After all, just two weeks ago -- after back-to-back 200-yard rushing performances -- some were asking if this attack could rival the team's record-setting 2007 edition. But it's just not surfacing consistently enough in those closing situations, so now the questions are different, such as, "Is it possible the offense is more disappointing than the defense at this point?"
When it comes to the late-game struggles, many naturally are looking for an answer.
"It's never really one thing," McDaniels said Monday, before sorting through parts of the self-destruction against the Jets.
Lloyd's undisciplined pass interference penalty (this writer's words, not McDaniels') got it started.
"Any time it's first-and-20, those aren't easy situations to overcome against a defense that plays the way the Jets do," McDaniels said.
Then came Brady's uncharacteristic carelessness with the football (this writer's words, not McDaniels').
"We had an opportunity for one of their defenders to catch an interception and it didn't happen," McDaniels said, knowing how fortunate the Patriots were on that play.
When two of your most experienced players are turning in plays like that, it highlights an execution issue. And when McDaniels calls for a run on second-and-20 -- assuming it wasn't a changed play at the line -- it puts the play-calling in question in those critical moments.
Again, we know the offense has the capability to slam the door shut; the Patriots' Sept. 30 win over the Bills is clear-cut evidence of that. That was a knockout if there ever was a knockout.
But the struggles to more decisively close out games linger, and that's why some could make the case it has been the offense -- which is supposed to be the unit carrying the team -- that has been more disappointing.
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