FOXBORO — These are strange days around Gillette Stadium.
Before this past month, the last time the Patriots suffered back-to-back losses was 2006. And the last time they lost three of their last four games was back in 2002, when New England opened 3-0 and promptly lost four straight. Of course, that 2002 team also ended the season out of the playoffs, thanks in large part to hideous back-to-back December defeats to Tennessee and the New York Jets.
The 2009 team, loser of its last two, wants to avoid falling into that same ignominious category. But as that 2002 team showed, any kind of post-Thanksgiving losing streak is a sure way to guarantee a disappointing finish.
With all that in mind, the Patriots enter Sunday’s game against the Panthers at Gillette Stadium at a crossroads. The season still is salvageable — running the table and going 11-5 will ensure a playoff spot. But any sort of misstep opens the door to the suddenly surging Dolphins, who are feeling pretty good about their chances again after last week’s shocking win over New England.
“I think every team in the league — every year — every team goes through adversity in different forms,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. “We’ve got two undefeated teams, but for all the rest of us, we’ve all lost games [and] we’ve all won them. There’s going to be the ups and downs in that, too.
“Within the game, within the season, when you start playing football in August and play through December, January, whatever it is, not everything is going to go perfect. Every team has to deal with that. Certainly we’re one of those [teams].”
However, even after the defeats to Miami and New Orleans, the Patriots feel pretty good about their chances. Four games to go, holding a one-game lead in the division and in complete control of your own destiny gives a man confidence, no matter how the last two games ended up.
“There’s nothing figured out at this point,” quarterback Tom Brady said. “There are playoff races, but there are no seed — there’s none of that. What we need to do is win this week.
“Two straight losses, that’s been tough for all of us, so we have to really put it all on the line this week. That’s why we’ve been working for a long time for this opportunity, and there are some teams in the league that would die for this opportunity — to be in first place with four games left.”
Here are four other things worth watching for on Sunday at Gillette Stadium:
If the Panthers try to challenge the Patriots' suddenly porous pass defense. New England’s pass defense has slipped dramatically the last few weeks — entering their Nov. 22 game against the Jets, the Patriots were seventh in the league in total passing yards per game allowed with 194.6. Entering Sunday’s game against the Panthers, they are 14th, yielding an average of 214 passing yards per game.
On paper, things appear to set up very nicely for the Patriots, who will face backup quarterback Matt Moore and the Panthers, who are a run-first, pass-second sort of team — Carolina is 27th in the league in passing yards per game with just 169 yards per game.
But it looked like a cakewalk heading into last week’s game against the Dolphins and quarterback Chad Henne, another pass-first, run-second team which was ranked 30th in the league in passing yards per game. Miami abandoned the run and Henne riddled the Patriots, using the same packages over and over again successfully at the expense of the New England pass defense. The Patriots were unable to get any pressure on Henne — he was sacked just once in 52 pass attempts — and the secondary looked like a mess. Henne had a career day, throwing 52 passes for 335 yards in last Sunday's 22-21 win over New England.
In all, the Patriots have allowed more than 325 yards passing in three of their last four games. If Moore (who was 14-for-20 for 161 yards last week against Tampa Bay) somehow makes that four in five games, New England will likely lose its third straight contest, regardless of how the rest of the afternoon ends up.
“If the opportunities are there, we’re going to try and hit them when we can,” Moore told reporters this week. “I don't think we’re going to get away from the run game. We've got a great run game and the offensive line and the running backs, everybody involved, do a nice job with that. But, definitely, we've got to hit the shots downfield when they’re there.”
How the four players who showed up late on Wednesday respond on Sunday. Randy Moss, Adalius Thomas, Derrick Burgess and Gary Guyton were all sent home after showing up late for a Wednesday morning meeting at Gillette Stadium, and it’s anybody’s guess as to how most of them will respond to the action Sunday. How they react to what happened will go a long way toward determining the outcome of Sunday’s game.
Guyton is a safe bet to respond favorably to what happened — a young, undrafted free agent, he still feels the need to prove himself on a daily basis. But how will the other three respond to what happened? To his credit, Moss has been a good citizen, at least publicly, during his time in Foxboro. History tells us that as long as he’s in a Patriots uniform, if he continues to get his fair share of touches, there’s a good chance to continue to play hard because he respects Brady. Burgess is a mystery — acquired for a third- and fifth-round pick before the start of the season, he remains one of the most underwhelming linebacking acquisitions of the Bill Belichick era in New England, up there with Monty Beisel and Chad Brown.
Finally, Thomas remains a wild card — he said this wasn’t the sort of thing that would motivate him to greater heights.
“Motivation is for kindergarteners. I’m not a kindergartener,” he said flatly on Thursday morning. “Sending somebody home, that’s like ‘Are you expelled? Come back and make good grades.’ Get that [expletive] out of here. That’s ridiculous.”
New England’s tight ends. In recent weeks, Patriots tight ends Benjamin Watson and Chris Baker have been utilized more as blockers than as pass-catchers — the two have combined for just 22 catches in the last 10 games. However, it’s clear that many defensive coordinators around the league haven’t found a way to completely stop Randy Moss and Wes Welker, they’ve at least discovered a way to slow them down. And with the New England offense continuing to stumble in the red zone (they are 24th in the league in red zone offense and came away with no points on two trips inside Miami’s 10-yard line last week) this may finally be the week for Watson and Baker.
“I think it’s really a focus here in the last four weeks when its obvious teams are really focusing hard on Randy and Wes, to really find some alternatives,” Brady said.
Second-half swoon. The Patriots continue to be a poor second-half team. While many of their struggles in the third and fourth quarter take place away from home — in their five road losses, New England has been outscored 83-24 in the second half — they’ve also struggled at home. (In their last two home games — against the Dolphins and the Jets — the Patriots have barely outscored the opposition in the second half, 18-14.)
In four of their five losses, New England has held a lead, only to see it slip away down the stretch. After the loss to the Dolphins, Brady mentioned an occasional lack of fight among his teammates. On Wednesday, he added that maybe the Patriots aren’t doing such a good job at matching their opponents’ intensity at the start of the third quarter.
“You’ve got to understand that this is the way it’s going to be: If you’re up by 10 points, or 11 points, or 13 points, they’re going to put pressure on you,” Brady said. “And we have to go out there and kind of match that level of intensity and aggressiveness that they have and still get the ball to the guys who are making the plays for us that day.
“Those second-half leads are important, and you need to be able to make those critical plays [that] we haven’t been making.”