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Sunday, December 23, 2012
Patriots don't feel like celebrating

By Mike Reiss
ESPNBoston.com

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- The New England Patriots didn't play a good football game Sunday against the Jacksonville Jaguars, and no one was sugarcoating it. Battered quarterback Tom Brady was breathing fire, still fuming almost an hour later, his mood reflective of an anything-but-celebratory locker room atmosphere.

The list of concerns was lengthy.

The Patriots started slow, giving up 202 yards in the first quarter. Brady absorbed a stunning total of nine hits. Injuries started to mount. Brady and receiver Brandon Lloyd couldn't get on the same page early. Uncharacteristic mistakes, like an underthrown Brady interception, showed up. Penalties did, too.

Add it all up and it felt like a loss, which was the way players were treating it.

But it was a 23-16 win; an important win, at that, when considering potential playoff implications, which no one should overlook given the roller-coaster nature of the NFL season.

After all, what does it say about the Houston Texans that they played so poorly at home against the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday and lost 23-6? They had a lot to play for. With a win, they would have clinched home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs.

Or how about the Pittsburgh Steelers, who lost at home against the Cincinnati Bengals in a game they had to win to keep their playoff hopes alive?

Or the once-mighty New York Giants, who were crunched 33-14 on the road by the Baltimore Ravens and saw their chances of qualifying for the playoffs severely damaged?

Or the Dallas Cowboys, playing at home and with their playoff hopes in their control, losing 34-31 to the New Orleans Saints?

That perspective and context is important here. The Patriots weren't the Patriots we've seen for most of the 2012 season on Sunday, and they know that if they play like that again, they won't be punching a ticket to New Orleans for the Super Bowl.

But as Van Morrison once sang, "There'll be days like this." Every team has them. Just look at the NFL scoreboard from Sunday.

Mankins
Logan Mankins didn't sound like a player on the winning team after the Patriots' shaky win over the Jaguars.

When the lights were finally turned off at EverBank Field on Sunday, the Patriots actually found themselves in better position than when the day started; the possibility of a first-round playoff bye is, surprisingly, still on the table because of the Texans' loss. If the Patriots beat the visiting Dolphins next Sunday, and the Texans lose on the road to the Colts, New England will get the bye. Somewhat amazingly, any of the top four seeds are in play for the Patriots depending on how the final weekend unfolds.

Again, no one is excusing the Patriots' disappointing performance in their closer-than-expected victory over the bottom-dwelling Jaguars. But it could be worse. A lot worse.

What the Patriots showed us is that they are human, the emotional toll of back-to-back prime-time games against the division-leading Texans and San Francisco 49ers wearing on them. They didn't come to Jacksonville with the needed intensity.

"It was a bad 60 minutes of football. We got out-competed, out-fought, and we're lucky to win," Brady said after one of his shakiest games of the season (24-of-41 for 267 yards, 2 TDs, 2 INTs). "We didn't compete. If you don't compete in the NFL, it's going to be close."

So while they'll take the result, acknowledging that it's better to learn lessons in victory than defeat, players left Jacksonville with personal pizzas, chicken fingers and the sour taste of an un-Patriot-like performance. Usually, a winning locker room is upbeat, but the Patriots' room on Sunday was eerily quiet, the kind of quiet usually reserved for a loss.

"You're always concerned when you don't play well," offensive lineman Logan Mankins said. "You want to play better. I think this week we're going to try to get things straightened out. Some weeks are good, some weeks you look like crap like we did today. Hopefully we can turn it around."

Chances are, they will, because another thing that shouldn't be overlooked about Sunday was how coach Bill Belichick managed his roster. Players were rested and rotated throughout the game, especially those battling injuries, such as starting left cornerback Aqib Talib. Others, such as tight end Rob Gronkowski, linebacker Brandon Spikes and cornerback Alfonzo Dennard, were kept home altogether. It was almost as if Belichick was tuning up the different parts of the roster so the players who will be counted on in the postseason are at their best when it counts.

More fine-tuning obviously is needed, but it's not like the Patriots became a bad football team overnight. They know it, and their fans should, too.

"We're a lot better than we showed today, we definitely are," defensive lineman Vince Wilfork said. "We just have to get it moving. … When we play together and play with a lot of confidence, we're a pretty good football team, that's what I do know."

Some players admitted to peeking at the scoreboard during the game Sunday and were uplifted by the Vikings taking it to the Texans, knowing it kept the possibility of a first-round bye alive. Others were surprised to learn of the result after the game, calling it an unexpected bonus.

"That's real big," acknowledged tight end Michael Hoomanawanui, who delivered a clutch third-down conversion late in the game. "But that has to go to the back of our mind, and we have to focus on Miami and take care of them first. If we don't do that, none of that matters."

Mankins, just as he does on the field as the Patriots' enforcer, was even more direct.

"That's nice, but we have a lot of problems going on here right now that we need to correct. If we'd have beaten them by 30, maybe I'd say we were watching that," he said. "But we have enough to take care of in our own locker room than to worry about others."

That succinctly sums up the way Patriots players viewed what unfolded Sunday. It was a win that felt like a loss.

So they'll return to work Wednesday, in better playoff position than expected, looking to regain the edge they unexpectedly lost on a tougher-than-anticipated Sunday in Jacksonville.