FOXBORO -- Tom Brady has been here before, and he knows what’s coming.
The quarterback understands the 2011 Patriots haven’t been tested. Not really, anyway. Sure, they've faced some struggles along the way, and the first eight games have offered plenty of difficulty. But with the regular season halfway done, the real trial now sits directly ahead of them, a character-defining stretch of games that will ultimately determine how the season will play out in New England.
The Patriots suffered a 24-20 loss to the Giants at Gillette Stadium Sunday (click here for the recap), dropping them to 5-3 on the season. It was the first time New England lost back-to-back games since 2009, and the first time Brady suffered a loss at home in the regular season since 2006. The defeat negates any advantage the Patriots had worked to obtain over the first eight games of the season, and with the Jets looming dead ahead, it presents the Pats with their first real challenge of the year: Beat back your hated rivals, or risk falling behind them in the playoff race and potentially losing control of your own destiny -- with Thanksgiving still three weeks away.
“We have half the season to go,” Brady said. “We’ll see what our team is made of this week.”
The Patriots got to this point by being less than their best for the second straight week. Against the Giants, they were unable to mount any sort of consistent offensive attack for the first two-plus quarters. Meanwhile, on defense, the Patriots played well for most of the afternoon but failed down the stretch, yielding the game-winning touchdown with less than a minute to go when New York quarterback Eli Manning found Jake Ballard from a yard out.
As a result of Sunday’s loss, this is a roster that now sits squarely at the crossroads, facing the roughest stretch of the season with games against the Jets, Eagles and suddenly feisty Chiefs. How will the Pats respond? Lose next Sunday in New Jersey, and the Patriots are suddenly just one game over .500, looking up at both the Jets and Bills in the division and likely trailing at least two teams in the AFC North as well.
But if they can sharpen things up on both sides of the ball and survive the stretch between now and Thanksgiving, there’s the real chance they can still make something of the season. That’s because things get considerably easier between Thanksgiving and Christmas, as the Patriots play the woeful Colts, Redskins, Broncos and Dolphins (teams with a combined 7-26 record after Sunday’s games).
When presented with such opportunities, Patriot teams have responded in certain ways. Last season, in the wake of the humiliating loss to the Browns in Cleveland, the Patriots reeled off eight straight wins to close out the regular season. In 2009, a New England team that was presented with a similar challenge folded down the stretch, losing three of four during a key portion and carving out a niche as one of the least mentally tough teams to wear a New England uniform.
As for Brady, it sounds like he’s not quite sure where the team is quite yet, but he likes what he’s seen to this point.
“I’m proud of our resiliency. There’s no quit in this team,” Brady said. “We’re going to keep fighting. There’s a lot of guys who battled back and fought through adversity [Sunday]. Wes [Welker] takes some huge hits and gets back up and runs on the field. Look, everyone hates losing. Man, it sucks.
“We’ll try to come out tomorrow, figure out the problems, try to correct them and then go out and have a good week and get ready for the Jets,” he added. “Because that’s obviously another tough one next week.”
Here are nine other things we learned Sunday at Gillette Stadium.
TOM BRADY BEARS SOME OF THE BURDEN FOR THIS LOSS
No one on offense did well over the first two quarters, including Brady. The quarterback was 13-for-19 for 134 yards with an interception in the first half, but he and the rest of the offense were unable to get into any sort of sustained offensive rhythm and were scoreless in that time. (The Patriots' longest first-half sequence came at the end of the second quarter when they got a 12-play drive that ended with a missed field goal from Stephen Gostkowski.) Things were smoother in the second half, as New England had four scoring drives (two touchdowns and two field goals) and Brady ended up 28-for-49 for 342 yards and two touchdowns. But he had two picks, one of which halted a New England drive at the Giants’ 29-yard line and another that New York turned into a field goal. In a game that featured so little margin for error, both were key mistakes for the Patriots.
Money quote: “We obviously played a very poor first half, but we battled back, we battled through some tough adversity there and put ourselves in a position. They made some great plays. That third down pass that Eli [Manning] made was a phenomenal throw and obviously the touchdown pass was a great throw. They played well.” -- Brady on the offensive performance
By the numbers: After throwing for 342 yards against the Giants and 2,703 yards through eight games this year, Brady is on pace to finish the season with 5,406 passing yards. Only two NFL players have thrown for 5,000 or more yards in a season: Dan Marino, who had an NFL record 5,084 in 1984, and Drew Brees, with 5,069 in 2008. The most yards Brady has ever thrown in a season is 4,806 in 2007.
IT LOOKS LIKE WES WELKER IS BACK ON TRACK
The wide receiver, who was held to 12 catches for 84 yards and a touchdown over the last two games, had a terrific afternoon, catching nine passes on 10 targets for a game-high 136 yards. He was at his best on New England’s first touchdown drive of the game when he caught passes of 27 and 28 yards and helped set the stage for the touchdown, a 5-yard pass from Brady to Aaron Hernandez on the second play from scrimmage in the fourth quarter.
Money quote: “I don’t think it was really as much as what they did. It was just a matter of our execution and us turning the ball over and us not doing the things necessary for us to move the ball. That’s kind of what it came down to.” -- Welker on the second-half adjustments made by the Patriots
By the numbers: Welker’s 66 catches and 960 yards halfway through the season still have him on pace for 132 catches and 1,920 yards. Marvin Harrison holds the single-season reception record with 143 in 2002, and Jerry Rice tops the single-season yardage mark at 1,848 in 1995.
THE OFFENSIVE LINE NEEDS A FIX
It was the third consecutive bad week for the Patriots offensive line, which struggled with protection. The Giants sacked Brady twice and came away with three quarterback hits, knocking him around and strip-sacking him in the second half. New England was able to grind out good yards on the ground, coming away with 106 rushing yards and a 4.4 yards per carry average. But the Pats now have allowed 12 sacks over the last four games after allowing just four over the first four weeks of the season.
Money quote: “Turnovers [and] penalties are the things that are killing us and holding us back. Penalties and turnovers are really holding us back. ... They just played good and they were getting after us and they were making plays and we weren’t making plays. We had some good runs, but not enough good ones and we had too many interceptions, [allowed] too much pressure, [and] a little bit of everything.” -- Offensive lineman Logan Mankins on the performance against the Giants
By the numbers: The New England offensive line was flagged once on Sunday for a false start that went against Mankins. Mankins is now the most penalized player on the roster, having been flagged five times this season (one holding and four false starts). In addition, the offensive line is the most penalized group as a unit (16 penalties) and the Patriots have picked up 14 false start penalties on the season, the most frequently called penalty against New England.
THE PATRIOTS WERE SERIOUS ABOUT TRYING TO GET CHAD OCHOCINCO INVOLVED IN THE PASSING GAME
For someone who didn’t catch a pass all afternoon, it was a busy day for Chad Ochocinco, as he was targeted a season-high five times, all of them in the second half. He was targeted three times in the third quarter and twice in the fourth quarter, with perhaps the most memorable attempt coming midway through the third with the Patriots in a first-and-10 at the New York 33-yard line. That’s when Ochocinco, who was split wide to the right, ran a deep route down the middle of the field toward the end zone, only to have the pass broken up by Corey Webster. Overall, Ochocinco was at fault on two of the targets (perhaps three, depending on a final review of the game film), and could be seen at one point having a rather animated conversation on the New England sideline with Brady.
Money quote: “Yeah, we’re working at it. We’ve only played together for eight games. We’re just going to keep working at it. We’ve got no other choice but just to keep working at it.” -- Brady on his chemistry with Ochocino
By the numbers: Ochocinco has been targeted 21 times through eight games -- more than BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Stevan Ridley, Julian Edelman and Taylor Price combined.
THE RETURN OF JEROD MAYO RESTORED SOME BALANCE TO THE PATRIOTS DEFENSE
Jerod Mayo returned to full-time duty on Sunday against the Giants and had the communication system in his helmet for the first time since he went down with a knee injury in Week 4 against Oakland. It wasn’t hard to see that the defense was a lot crisper and the communication a lot sharper than it was last week against the Steelers, at least for three-plus quarters. New England kept the Giants off the scoreboard for the first 39 minutes of the game, held New York to 4-for-14 on third down, forced two turnovers and made the Giants punt eight times. But in the end, a late drive engineered by Manning (when he took advantage of starters Brandon Spikes and Pat Chung not being on the field because of injury) was enough to wipe away any positive memories the Patriots defense can take out of this game.
Money quote: “It was very frustrating. At the end of the day, we take it on our shoulders. We have to close the game and we didn’t execute when we needed to.” -- Mayo on the frustration level
By the numbers: At the midway point of the season (he sat out two games because of injury), Mayo has 27 total tackles. Through his fist six games last season, he had 72 tackles.
TIGHT ENDS CONTINUE TO BEWILDER THE PATRIOTS
After holding tight ends pretty much in check through the first six weeks of the season, the Patriots were burned early last week by Pittsburgh’s Heath Miller (seven catches, 85 yards), and on Sunday against the Giants they were beaten late by Jake Ballard. The New York tight end caught four passes for 67 yards and a touchdown, with the killer coming with less than two minutes left that went right down the seam and took the Giants from their 39 to the Patriots’ 33, setting up what would be the game-winning score, a 1-yarder to Ballard with 19 seconds left.
Money quote: “I played the run. You have to play the run first. He stepped up and got out to the back of the end zone. That was it. It was a good route, a good pass. ... I didn’t lose him. I had him covered pretty good. It was a good catch and good pass.” -- Patriots linebacker Tracy White on Ballard’s game-winning catch
By the numbers: Manning completed 20 total passes to six different receivers: 11 to wide receivers, four to tight ends, four to running backs and one to a fullback.
CONVERSELY, THE PATRIOTS TIGHT ENDS CONTINUE TO BEWILDER THE REST OF THE LEAGUE
The Rob Gronkowski/Aaron Hernandez duo combined for 12 catches, 136 yards and two touchdowns on the afternoon. While Hernandez celebrated his 22nd birthday with a 5-yard touchdown catch from Brady at the start of the fourth quarter, it was Gronkowski who was the real offensive star for the Patriots. He had a career-high eight catches for 101 yards, with his touchdown coming with 1:36 left and New England in a fourth-and-9 situation at the New York 14. Brady went to Gronkowski twice earlier on the series (once over the middle and over at the near plylon), but in the end, the third time was the charm for the duo, as the quarterback found Gronkowski open just over the goal line to give New England a lead with less than two minutes remaining.
Money quote: “Luckily enough they trusted in me on the third time. It was all or nothing. We needed that play. Tom just happened to look at me, read me. Just a play you go over in practice, just to get it down, timing and everything. He made a nice throw, and I just had to make a play on it.” -- Gronkowski on his touchdown catch
By the numbers: Gronkowski has six touchdowns this season and 16 touchdowns since the start of the 2010 season, the most among any tight end in the NFL over that span. Jason Witten is second with 13 touchdowns.
NO ONE FEELS WORSE THAN SERGIO BROWN
The defensive back, who said he got “tangled up” with New York wide receiver Victor Cruz on a key pass interference penalty late in the fourth quarter, was a little peeved at the call. “I got my head back, looking at the ball, and tried to make a play on the ball,” said Brown, who picked up his second pass interference call of the season. “I guess we got tangled up. I was looking at the ball and trying to make a play on it. I mean, the feet got tangled up and they called it on me. I was surprised at the penalty, It wasn’t like ... I was looking at the ball. I was playing the ball. I didn’t think they were going to call it.” The call got the Giants down to the 1-yard line, and New York punched in the game-winning score three plays later.
Money quote: “The last two calls were tough. That’s a lot of yards on those two plays.” -- Patriots coach Bill Belichick on the two fourth-quarter pass interference calls against the Patriots, one against Brown and the other against Arrington
By the numbers: Brown, who was been whistled for three penalties on the season, leads the team in yardage lost with 71.
JULIAN EDELMAN HAS HAD BETTER WEEKS
In the wake of his assault charge over an incident at a Boston-area nightclub, the Patriots wide receiver was part of a mostly poor performance from New England’s special teams Sunday against the Giants. Edelman fumbled away a third-quarter punt that nearly led to a New York touchdown (if it wasn’t for a Kyle Arrington interception in the end zone), and averaged just 3.4 yards on five punt returns. Stephen Gostkowski missed a 27-yard field goal attempt at the end of the first half, a miss that would come back to haunt New England. There was some good -- Zoltan Mesko punted five times (four of them coming in the first half) and averaged 45 yards, while Gostkowski put three of his five kickoffs into the end zone and did have two made field goals, a 32- and 45-yarder. But two straight weeks of mostly shoddy play on special teams has to be frustrating.
Money quote: “That close, you never expect to miss. I just have to do a better job so that when we get in the area I have to put points on the board and not let my team down.” -- Gostkowski on his missed 27-yard field goal
By the numbers: According to our pal Nuggetpalooza, with his make on Sunday, Gostkowski has now connected on 34 consecutive fourth-quarter field goals. No one else has ever made more than 25 in row since people began tracking the stat in 1991.