When it comes to the 2012 Patriots, we can talk all we want about offensive balance and a defense that continues to come away with well-timed takeaways (the Pats had three on Sunday against the Jaguars). Now, more than ever, the NFL is a quarterback league, and it’s clear that these Patriots will only go as far as their superstar quarterback will take them.
On Sunday against the lowly Jaguars, Tom Brady wasn’t exactly transcendent: He ended up going 24-for-41 for 267 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions. (Some of that was on a subpar performance by the offensive line.) But when it mattered most, he was at his best. He engineered a pair of nifty touchdown drives -- one in the second quarter and another in the fourth -- and helped put together three more drives that ended in field goals. That was enough to turn a 13-3 deficit into a 23-13 lead. New England ultimately came away with a 23-16 victory over the lowly Jaguars (click here for a complete recap).
After the game, Brady wasn’t in the best of moods, calling it a “bad 60 minutes of football.”
“We got out-competed, out-fought, and we’re lucky to win,” Brady said. “We didn’t compete. If you don’t compete in the NFL, it’s going to be close.”
Yes, in the end, it was close, but it was enough -- mainly because Brady is Brady and Chad Henne is Chad Henne. (That is to say, he’ll be going great for three quarters before he turns back into a pumpkin and throws an interception or three.) In the end, at least statistically, Henne, who was 29-for-51 for 348 yards with one touchdown and three picks, wasn’t too far removed from Brady. It’s just that Brady confined his interceptions to the first half, while Henne threw two of his three interceptions in the final 3:32 of the game.
Brady was good enough to beat the Jaguars, a 2-13 team that's as bad as any in the NFL. But the inconsistent afternoon won't be good enough come January, when there's almost no margin for error.
For Brady, it’s the sort of game he’ll have to shake off going forward, because history tells us that when it comes to the postseason, if Brady is at anything less than his best, it greatly decreases the chances that the Patriots will get to New Orleans. Consider:
• The Patriots are 7-0 when Brady has a 100-plus quarterback rating in the playoffs, and they usually win going away when he tops the century mark. (New England’s average margin of victory is 16 when he’s better than 100.) When he’s below 100, they’re 9-6 -- 8-6 if you don’t count the AFC championship game vs. Pittsburgh in which Drew Bledsoe relieved him -- with an average margin of the Pats winning by 0.5 points. Excluding that Pittsburgh win with Bledsoe at the controls, the Patriots have scored exactly as many points as their opponents in games where Brady has fallen short of a 100 rating.
• Also notable: He’s only had one playoff game with a quarterback rating over 100 since 2009 -- his six-touchdown game against the Broncos last year. (The Patriots have a 2-3 playoff record in that time.) And his highest rating in a loss was last year’s Super Bowl to the Giants (91.1), which underscores the idea of how thin the margin is in the NFL -- a one-quarter falter is enough to tip a game from a Pats win to a loss against playoff opponents.
No one is more attuned to the pursuit of perfection than Brady -- he’s fueled by a relentless desire for perfection, particularly at this time of year. (Albert Breer of the NFL Network recently reported that he was ripping into his teammates on the sidelineswhen they were up three scores against the Texans.) For the quarterback, he knows that everything is building to the next six weeks, an all-out sprint that could end in New Orleans. If you’re going to stumble occasionally, you better do it now, because you won’t get the chance once January rolls around.
“You get very concerned when you don’t play well,” Brady said. “That’s very evident by the way we performed. We better have a good week of practice, or it’s going to be just as tough against Miami.”
And it will be far tougher in January, when the Pats will need a superstar quarterback if they are to fulfill their Bayou ambitions.
Here are nine other things we learned about the Patriots on Sunday.
IT’S IMPOSSIBLE TO MAKE A BROAD STATEMENT ABOUT THE STATE OF THE DEFENSE BASED ON THIS GAME
There will be some knee-jerk reactionaries who will try to tell you there’s reason to be concerned about the Patriots defensebased on what happened against the Jaguars. Not to worry, especially when you consider there were a ton of changes throughout the day for New England. And while some of them were scheme- and injury-related, it’s also important to remember that some of it likely was done in the name of finding who is ready to play and who can be counted on when the postseason rolls around and who isn’t.
• In the secondary, Aqib Talib (who had struggled with injury over the course of the week and in warmups) was out for a large part of the game, while Alfonzo Dennard (who was on the inactive list) were sidelined, as the Patriots went with Devin McCourty,Kyle Arrington and Marquice Cole at corner in a nickel package. McCourty’s move to corner meant that Steve Gregory and Pat Chung were back together at safety, and while Chung was lifted for rookie Tavon Wilson (who hadn’t player serious snaps since the midway point of the season), he did manage to come away with a pair of well-timed picks.
• In addition, outside linebacker Rob Ninkovich took over at middle linebacker for Brandon Spikes, who was inactive because of a knee injury. Special teamer Tracy White got a lot of snaps at linebacker, and backup defensive lineman Brandon Deaderick got some serious run on the outside because of Ninkovich’s move inside.
The bottom line is that if the Patriots had their full complement of defenders -- particularly in the secondary -- there’s little reason to think the Jaguars hang 202 total yards and 10 points on New England in the first quarter. The Patriots got the best of both worlds: they won the game, and they now have a better idea of who can play and who will likely be left by the side of the road/rendered inactive once the postseason begins.
THE OFFENSIVE LINE IS HAVING ISSUES
On paper, this was an extremely winnable matchup for the Patriots -- the Jags entered the game having sacked opposing quarterbacks on just 3 percent of passing plays this year, the lowest percentage in the league and on pace to be the fourth-lowest percentage since 1970. However, Jacksonville sacked Brady three times on the afternoon, continuing a troubling trend over the last month. Brady was sacked just three times from Week 6 to Week 12, but he has taken 11 sacks from Week 13 through Week 16.
THE PATRIOTS AREN’T AFRAID TO PUT SOME STUFF ON FILM
It was clear that the Patriots wanted to plant some seeds with scouts who were watching this game with an eye toward the postseason, as they did a few things that could give some scouts pause when they’re assembling their postseason plans on New England. First, they ran a fake reverse on a punt, with Wes Welker and Deion Branch crossing paths but not connecting on the handoff. Second, they added a direct snap to running back Stevan Ridley. And third, they tried some new guys at different spots. (As we previously noted, there were several defensive personnel changes, including Ninkovich moving to inside linebacker and McCourty shuffling back at corner.) Whether that was a byproduct of injuries, a desire to have opponents add another layer to preparation or to gauge the playing status some backups and whether or not they’ll be able to contribute once the playoffs roll around, there was some curious decision-making when it came to New England’s approach against the Jags.
CHANDLER JONES STILL IS CAPABLE OF MAKING PLAYS
Over the last month, no one was quite sure what to make of rookie defensive end Chandler Jones. The Syracuse product was on the short list of Defensive Rookie of the Year candidates midway through November, but a one-tackle effort against the Bills on Nov. 11 -- which was followed by an ankle injury he suffered on Nov. 18 against the Colts -- led some to believe Jones was slowing down. But Jones, who missed two games following his injury against Indy, made a huge play late against the Jags. Down by seven, Jacksonville decided to take a shot for the end zone on fourth-and-10 with just over three minutes remaining. That’s when Jones came flying off the edge and delivered a great shot on Henne, which affected the route of the ball. The pass was picked off by Chung, the first of his two picks. Jones has struggled over the last few weeks, but it was a big play at a big time for the rookie.
WITHOUT GRONK, THE VETERAN RECEIVERS CONTINUE TO PLAY WELL
Ever since his one-catch game against the Dolphins on Dec. 2, Brandon Lloyd has been a key part of the New England passing game. Over the last three contests, he’s had 23 catches on 37 targets (most on the team in that time) for 341 yards and a touchdown. On Sunday against Jacksonville, he was at his best late -- he had five receptions for 54 yards in the second half, including catches of 16, 14 and nine yards on New England’s first scoring drive of the third quarter. (In all, he had six catches on 12 targets for 62 yards.) As for Welker, he had 10 catches for 88 yards and a touchdown -- his receptions on Sunday now give him five seasons with at least 110 catches. (Remarkably, no player in NFL history has more than two.) For Welker, the highlights came late in the third and at the start of the fourth. First, he had a 25-yarder on New England’s final drive of the third quarter deep down the left sideline. Second (two plays into the fourth quarter), Brady hit Welker on a 2-yard pass on the right side that gave New England a 23-13 lead with 14:20 left in regulation. It will be interesting to see how the targets are divided when Rob Gronkowski returns, but they’ve both done an excellent job picking up the slack, particularly over the last month.
THERE WILL BE NO TALK OF BALL SECURITY THIS WEEK
While New England fell short of that 4.0 yards-per-carry average that every group of running backs aims for, the Patriots backfield still had a good afternoon, grinding out some tough yardage and helping the offense move the chains. Stevan Ridley bounced back nicely after a rough week against the Niners with 84 yards on 18 carries for a 4.7-yard average. Included in that total was a 16-yard burst in the first quarter that was the centerpiece of a drive that ended with a 25-yard field goal fromStephen Gostkowski. (Ridley also had a neat play, taking a page from Kevin Faulk’s old playbook with a direct snap in the second half.) Danny Woodhead continues to be an important and versatile part of the offense -- he had one receiving touchdown and would have had a second if not for a terrific defensive play by Jacksonville’s Jeremy Mincey, who knocked the pass away at the last second.
NO COVERAGE ISSUES FOR THE SPECIAL TEAMERS THIS WEEK
One week after having significant special teams issues -- specifically in punt and kick coverage -- against the Niners, there were no such problems this week for New England. Last week, San Francisco’s average starting field position was its own 46-yard line, and the Niners’ successful fake punt on fourth down early cost the Patriots. On Sunday, Jacksonville’s Richard Murphy had one impressive kick return (for 32 yards), but other than that, the Jaguars return teams were held in check by New England. Jacksonville’s average starting field position was its own 29-yard line -- the hosts never started a single drive in Patriots territory. And when it came to the rest of the special teams crew, it was a good afternoon: Gostkowski connected on all three field-goal attempts (25, 49 and 38 yards) and both extra-point attempts. Zoltan Mesko averaged 47.8 yards on his five punts, and while the Patriots faced four touchbacks, Welker averaged 14 yards on his three punt returns.
MICHAEL HOOMANAWANUI MIGHT BE AMONG THE MOST IMPROVED THS YEAR
The big tight end out of Hawaii came to Foxboro earlier this season and looked overmatched at times as he struggled to pick up the system. But he’s really come on strong, particularly over the last few weeks. (He played 46 snaps against the Texans and 40 the following week against the Niners. He also had an extended stretch Sunday against the Jaguars.) While he can’t compare with Gronkowski, he’s become a solid blocker and dependable pass-catcher when called upon. On Sunday against the Jaguars, Hoomanawanui had a pair of catches, finishing with 46 yards (third best on the team). In the first quarter, he had a 32-yarder, and he added a 14-yarder in the fourth quarter when he alertly stayed in bounds to kill some clock down the stretch. He’ll see a drastic reduction in playing time when Gronkowski returns -- either next week or at the start of the postseason -- but he certainly has acquitted himself very well as of late.
THE PATRIOTS ARE ROOTING FOR THE COLTS AND/OR CHIEFS
All six AFC playoff teams are locked in, but only the fifth (Indy) and sixth (Cincinnati) have their seeding clarified. The Texans,Broncos, Patriots and Ravens are all lined up, first through fourth, but there’s still plenty of uncertainty as to how things will shake out. If Houston stumbles in its finale next week in Indy, that could open the door for Denver (which plays Kansas City) or the Patriots (who are home against the Dolphins).
The Patriots can claim the top seed with a win over Miami, a Denver loss at home to Kansas City and a Texans loss to the Colts in Indianapolis. That would give the Patriots, Broncos and Texans all records of 12-4, and the Patriots beat both teams. The Patriots still can collect a first-round bye and the No. 2 seed if they beat the Dolphins and the Broncos or Texans lose.
The Patriots would finish No. 3 -- and host a wild-card game -- if they lose, or if Houston and Denver both win. The Patriots also will finish No. 3 if they lose and the Ravens lose in Cincinnati. If the Ravens and Patriots finish tied at 11-5, the Ravens will be the No. 3 seed and the Patriots No. 4 based on Baltimore’s 31-30 win on Sept. 23. (For more, check out Mike Petraglia’s breakdown here.)