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Monday, December 17, 2012
Don't give up on Patriots

By Field Yates
ESPNBoston.com

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- It hurt. It stung. It could be seen in their eyes, heard in their voices; the disappointment of defeat.

Yes, the New England Patriots let an opportunity get away against the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday night. An eight-game winning streak, control of a top-two seed and first-round bye in the AFC playoffs and momentum from an unlikely 28-point comeback all slipped away as the clock struck zero.

Belichick-Brady
Even when things look bleak for the Patriots, they can always fall back on having Bill Belichick and Tom Brady on their side.

Tough to swallow? Yes.

Reason to panic? Not quite.

Despite the humility associated with falling at home in December for the first time since 2002, the takeaways from Sunday night's loss aren't all bad for the Patriots.

After all, if time had a DVR function and could be rewound just six days, talk of the Patriots being not just the class of the AFC, but the entire NFL, was as easy to come by as traffic: as in, everyone was saying it.

But such a function doesn't exist (at least not yet anyway), so for those needing to find a silver lining in Sunday night's defeat, here's a healthy serving of reasons to remain optimistic.

1. 28 points in 11:16. Just three teams are averaging 28 or more points per game this season. Entering Week 15, the 49ers hadn't allowed more than 24 points in a game this season. The Patriots scored 28 points in 11:16 to roar back from a four-touchdown deficit. And this wasn't 28 points aided by a butt fumble or botched kickoff return.

The Patriots scored 28 points on four consecutive drives that spanned, on average, 79.3 yards and 8.8 plays. They wore down the most dominant defense in football, running and throwing the football with relative ease. It served as a reminder that the Patriots have the best offense in the league, and neither the elements nor a stingy defense can slow them down when they're clicking.

2. No Gronk. Go figure that perhaps the Patriots' best offensive stretch of the season would come without their second-best offensive player. Tight end Rob Gronkowski (forearm/hip) was again forced to sit on Sunday night, but all signs point to a Gronkowski return by the start of the playoffs -- if not sooner. That means the Patriots will have their top four receiving weapons on the field and truly healthy for the first time since Week 2 (tight end Aaron Hernandez clearly was not himself in a Week 6 game at Seattle).

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Injuries are a part of football -- every team deals with them -- but the Patriots offense has had to compromise in the absence of Gronkowski. He opens up the play-action game to a level that cannot be replicated, he's as dangerous a red-zone target as the team has, and he makes the running game that much more difficult to stop. His production and dominance are unparalleled at the tight end position, and the trickle-down effect his presence has on the rest of the offense can't go unnoticed. Gronk's return certainly will provide a boost.

3. Other health/roster considerations. For the first time in a long time, the Patriots didn't declare a single player as out in advance of Sunday's game. Gronkowski was among 19 players listed as questionable, and though that total is high, one could argue that this team is in very good shape health-wise. Not a single opening-day offensive or defensive starter has been placed on injured reserve, and the Patriots, while banged up, will have their core pieces on the field going forward, barring any new problems.

Not only is Gronk set to return soon, but so too will defensive end Jermaine Cunningham, who will finish serving a four-game suspension this Sunday. The pass rush hasn't struggled in Cunningham's absence -- it has produced seven sacks in three games -- but Cunningham allows the defense to generate pressure from the front four when he is on the field. The Patriots got burned on blitzes for touchdowns against the 49ers on Sunday night, and while the team surely needs to incorporate pressures throughout the course of a game, Cunningham makes the rush more versatile.

4. Separating trends from aberrations. Looking back at what plagued the Patriots on Sunday night, two figures stand out: four turnovers (two from Tom Brady) and 2-for-15 on third down conversions (13.3 percent). Some of that undoubtedly was attributable to the 49ers defense, which is among the best in the league. But the Patriots were uncharacteristically careless with the ball and seemingly out of sync on third down.

Entering the game, the Patriots had just 10 -- yes, 10 -- turnovers in 13 games, and despite the woeful third-down outing, they still easily top the NFL with a 49.5 percent conversion rate. As Brady stressed on Monday morning, the difference between his offense finding its rhythm and struggling is a matter of personal execution. The 49ers defense was good for much of Sunday night, but the Patriots did themselves few favors on third down and in protecting the ball. That's fixable going forward.

5. The X-factors. Ultimately, when it comes down to it, whether looking at a single game or the season as a whole, there's no better head coach-quarterback tandem in all of football than Bill Belichick and Tom Brady. Brady's MVP case may have taken a hit on Sunday night, but he's as good as it gets at the position, and he's shown innumerable times that he can carry an offense.

Meanwhile, Belichick is the ultimate tactician when it comes to finding ways to get his team back on track. He has a unique ability to keep his teams focused on the task at hand while also building a model that is sustainable over time. The track record for this duo speaks for itself, and the Patriots will always be a factor in the playoffs as long as Belichick and Brady are around.