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Sunday, October 14, 2012
Patriots show trouble at top

By Mike Reiss
ESPNBoston.com

SEATTLE -- You're frustrated with the New England Patriots and their inability to drive a stake through the heart of their opponent. You're frustrated with a team that prides itself on mastering situational football botching things multiple times when it counted most. And you've just about had enough of a defensive backfield that is giving up easy plays at an alarming rate.

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It's OK, you can let them have it. They know they deserve it after a 24-23 road loss to the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday that was, to be kind, a very un-Patriotic effort.

Poor coaching decisions. A team that lacked organization in key moments. Shaky quarterback play. Mental mistakes. They combined to leave the Patriots (3-3) as the first team with three losses by two points or fewer in its first six games since the 1960 Dallas Texans of the AFL.

It's not often that Bill Belichick and Tom Brady are near the top of the list when factoring in reasons for a defeat, but they were Sunday at CenturyLink Field. Then there was the defensive backfield, which is more of the same old story of late, and we'll get to that.

But let's start at the top with Belichick and Brady.

Masters of situational football, game management and playing smart, they lost their way on Sunday, and no sequence highlights that more than the end of the second quarter. The Patriots led 17-10 and had just been handed a gift when the Seahawks couldn't get off a punt, giving the ball back to New England at the Seattle 24-yard line with 40 seconds left.

On third-and-3 with six seconds left, and with no timeouts remaining, Belichick decided to try for one more play. Why?

The worst-case scenario unfolded when Brady, trying to beat the clock and with his decision-making process sped up, fired a pass through the back of the end zone and correctly was called for intentional grounding. After a 10-second runoff of the game clock, the Patriots ended up with no points in an inexcusable turn of events.

Belichick could point to the fact there was still one second remaining on the clock after the play as a reason it was the right decision to roll the dice, but that misses the point. He put Brady in a tougher-than-it-had-to-be spot.

Just as Belichick talks about the ball carrier holding the fate of the team in his hands because nothing is more important than securing the ball, he held the fate of the team in his hands at that moment. Taking the three points, maintaining momentum and making it a two-possession game with the Seahawks getting the ball to open the second half was the smarter call.

Bill Belichick
Bill Belichick was unnecessarily reckless at the end of the first half, and the Patriots paid the price.

Why risk anything there? Trying one more play was reckless, especially on the road in a raucous environment.

"The play at the end of the half was a mental mistake," said Brady, taking responsibility for the miscue that brought back memories of his first pass attempt in Super Bowl XLVI against the Giants. "We thought we could take a shot at a touchdown there. I just have to throw the ball away a little closer to one of our guys, that's what it comes down to. They trust me to be smart with the ball and I just made a bad play. It's tough to give up three points. That is why you lose games because you squander opportunities to score points."

The Patriots, who scored just one touchdown in six trips inside the red zone, did plenty of squandering.

Brady, directing a pass-first attack that essentially conceded the run (58 pass attempts versus 26 rushes) -- what happened to balance? -- was picked off twice despite entering the game having thrown just one interception in 185 pass attempts.

And Belichick, whose mastery of game management has shone for the greater part of the past 13 seasons, found himself with no timeouts at the end of the contest because of a general disorganization that had the Patriots looking nothing like their past championship self. The final timeout was burned, right before the two-minute warning, when the defense had 12 men on the field as there was confusion on a substitution.

At times Sunday, you wondered if the Patriots could have stopped the deep play even if they had 12 men. That's how ugly it looked in the secondary, where starting right cornerback Kyle Arrington was demoted after the second series in place of rookie Alfonzo Dennard, and an injury to safety Patrick Chung had rookies Tavon Wilson and Nate Ebner on the field for the final dagger from the Seahawks, a 46-yard touchdown pass to Sidney Rice with 1:18 remaining in which Rice split the overmatched rookies.

"You've got to make a play when you need to make it, and I didn't," said Wilson, who started for the second week in a row in place of injured veteran Steve Gregory. "I got beat. I accept that. We were in a simple coverage. He made the play and I didn't."

Let's not sugarcoat it; the Patriots have glaring issues in the secondary. The simple solution when the opponent needs to make a big play against them seems to be this: Just throw it up there and we'll come down with it.

Players faced the hard music following the loss and took accountability, with the most prevalent questions focusing on the inability to close out games. Brady said the Patriots showed they have it in them from the Week 5 win over the Denver Broncos, but that seems too kind. Is taking a 31-7 lead late into the third quarter and holding on for a 31-21 win really closing things out?

Not really, and Brady seems to know it.

"We just need to do a better job when it counts," he said of Sunday's game, words that were echoed in all corners of the locker room.

Those "when-it-counts" situations are eluding the Patriots more regularly than in the past, although there doesn't appear to be any lack of confidence that the players can regroup. As disappointed as they were in an eerily quiet locker room, they also expressed belief.

"We have good players, we have guys that care about the team and winning, we just have to make plays when they're there," said left guard Logan Mankins, one of the team's captains. "We can't make mistakes in those big situations."

"I know we have it. It's all about getting it out of us," receiver Deion Branch added. "It's crazy. As ugly as the game was, we still had plenty of opportunities."

They sure did, and in a script not often seen with this team, it was the coach and quarterback who squandered the biggest ones.