Monday, October 31, 2011

Problems with the Patriots?

Sunday wasn't a banner day in Patriots Nation. The Pittsburgh Steelers had the ball almost twice as long as the Pats in a 25-17 loss; and the fact that the game was even as close as the final score indicates is due more to the Steelers' ineptitude in the red zone than anything the Patriots did.

But let's be real. Before the season started, we had this one circled as a loss. At least I did.

You know how that goes. You examine the schedule and go right down the line ... win, lose, win, lose ... etc.

Thus far, I'm off one. I had them at 6-1 to this point, losing only to the Steelers. I had them at 13-3 for the season, losing only to the Jets at the Meadowlands, Pittsburgh and the Philadelphia Eagles. Maybe that was optimistic, especially after they lost in Buffalo.

But honestly, do you see anyone on their schedule the rest of the way, other than Philadelphia, who scares you? The Giants? They could barely beat Miami.

I'm confident the Bills will come up here and lose ... and that the Patriots will easily defeat Miami wherever they play. I don't see Denver (and Tim Tebow) posing much of a threat, nor do I worry too much about the Washington Redskins ... who would appear to be done before they even reach the halfway point.

It's possible the Kansas City Chiefs could give them a game. They look as if they've turned the corner a little. But I'm counting on the Patriots' knowledge of Matt Cassel to carry the day.

So seriously? I say 12-4, which should be more than enough to make the playoffs and possibly win the AFC East.

The problem, however, is that once the Patriots get past these next two weeks, and can coast to the end of the season (except for Kansas City and Philadelphia), another problem looms. The playoffs.

In golf, you drive for show; you putt for dough. In baseball, you may win a lot of games on your offense, but good pitching will always beat good hitting. And bad pitching turns all-stars into losers.

Didn't we just see that? The Red Sox, for all the glitter in their batting order, lost because their starters forgot how to pitch. The Texas Rangers pulled a World Series fold reminiscent of the 1986 Red Sox because their relievers couldn't get anyone out when they needed to.

In football, offense may win you games, and even get you into the playoffs. But once you're there, you'd better have a mean, intimidating defense. And that, my friends, the Patriots do not have.

The Patriots have not won a playoff game since they beat San Diego in 2008 to make the Super Bowl, where they lost to the Giants primarily because New York had a snarling, mean, intimidating front four who could get after Tom Brady and make him do things he did not like to do (not to mention one fabulously lucky catch).

The reasons the Patriots haven't won are simple. Their defense isn't mean enough to win playoff football. Over the course of 16 games, they play enough bad teams so that their offense can overcome the defense's mediocrity. Plus, they've reached a point in their history, especially at home, where teams play scared against them (see Dallas Cowboys, Oct. 16).

There are enough bad teams on the Patriots' schedule that they should win 11 or 12 games even with this defense. But they don't play the Baltimore Ravens or Cincinnati Bengals, both of whom have shown signs of having fierce defenses; and and if they play the Steelers again, it'll be in Pittsburgh again, unless the Steelers come down with the plague between now and then).

This spells trouble. Teams with even decent defenses beat them. Why? Because the Patriots' defenses can't stop ordinary offenses from accomplishing great things.

The Pats are 5-2, but lets examine that. They beat Miami (which no one else seems to have any trouble doing either), San Diego (the Chargers always find a way to lose up here), the Jets (somehow, if the Jets are still hanging around in January, their offense won't be in the same disarray it was earlier this season), the Oakland Raiders (which I thought, at the time, was a pretty good victory), and the Cowboys (who should have won the game, and would have had they not played scared). In every one of those games (even against Dallas), the defense had trouble getting off the field.

The Patriots, even when they were winning Super Bowls, always kept the other team's offense on the field for long periods of time. Rarely did they ever dominate the possession game. As Brady's career progressed, the Patriots morphed from being sort of a ball-control team to being one that lived and died with the big strike. That became very apparent when they signed Randy Moss.

They had a defense back then that lived and died with big plays too. Tedy Bruschi, Rodney Harrison, Mike Vrabel, et al ... their forte was coming up with the right play at the right times. Perhaps way back in the beginning, when Richard Seymour was younger and not so prone to injury, that front four was imposing. But as time wore on, that defense relied on the instincts of its big play makers.

However, guys like Bruschi, Harrison, Vrabel, Teddy Johnson, Roman Pfeifer, Ry Law, and the rest, don't grow on trees. They are special. What makes them good is some combination of physical ability and smarts.

Same with Troy Brown. He was never most physically gifted guy the Patriots ever had. But he was smart. And he -- like the other aforementioned players -- knew how to win. They got it. They understood where they were supposed to be, when they were supposed to be there, and what they were supposed to do once they got there.

Did Rodney Harrison ever take a bad angle on a ball, or a tackle? Doubtful. Did Law? Never.

Here's what I think: For six or seven years in the 2000s, the Patriots had something unique on defense. They had a special group of guys whose skills meshed with each other like a well-oiled piece of machinery. Whatever egos they had, they managed to submerge for the betterment of the team. That sounds trite, but the art of ego self-management is far easier said than done.

And try as Bill Belichick might, he probably will never get that combination of selfless-but-talented defenders ever again. Ever. That defense has to be taken apart and put back together from scratch. It needs some sort of cohesive theme to it, which it doesn't have now.

What the Patriots defense is is patchwork group of aging veterans -- castoffs, really -- who can't contribute on the field the way they used to; and a group of either inexperienced or overrated kids who just aren't cutting it. Of that group, only Jerod Mayo could take his place among the NFL elite at his position.

Here's where I think Belichick has a quandary going for himself: If he just decides to chuck it and rebuild through the draft, he runs the risk of depriving Brady that fourth Super Bowl championship ... the one that would really, truly cement his legacy as one of the all-time greats (though he may already be in that category now). Belichick may come across as an unsentimental sour old churl, but if you know anything about him, you know he has tremendous loyalty toward those who have been loyal to him.

Rather than just release Bruschi, he gave him the chance to announce his retirement with dignity and then praised him effusively when the time came. He did the same for Troy Brown.

And he should have. Bruschi and Brown were two football players. There was nothing about either of them that would a scout take notice. You had to see them over the long haul to appreciate what they brought to the team.

Brady is one better. He is another loyal soldier to Belichick who also happens to be among the smartest and most talented quarterbacks of his era. If Belichick feels as if he owes Brady his best efforts to get him another championship, well, it's easy enough to understand. That relationship has had mutual benefits. Each has turned the other into a legend.

But we've seen this so many times ... especially in Boston. The Celtics, for years, tried to patch up the holes in the wall in order to get Larry Bird another ring. And they're close to doing it again to get Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen another taste of it (though Danny Ainge screwed that one up last winter royally).

This is one of the reasons teams eventually lose their edges. They become too attached to stars who may have a year or two beyond their peak, trying everything they can to get them that one, last ride to glory. But it doesn't work that often (John Elway being one glaring exception to the rule).

Most of the time, all it does is set the team back. Can anyone say the Minnesota Vikings are better off for having given Brett Favre an extra two years? How did the Kansas City Chief make out with Joe Montana?

At least the Boston Bruins did the smart thing (though it hurt to see him go) and traded Ray Bourque to a team that seemed to be on its way toward winning a Stanley Cup.

I don't know what the answer is, except to say that's why Belichick gets the big bucks ... to make these kinds of decisions. It does take the wisdom of Solomon to figure it all out, doesn't it?

Judging from what we saw Sunday in Pittsburgh, the Patriots will win 11 or 12 games, they'll make the playoffs ... may even win the AFC East ... and then struggle because they'll be facing teams that play defense.

There's nothing mysterious about any of this. It's football. Offense fills seats. Defense wins championships.

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