NEPD Staff Writer: Dan Hope
In the aftermath of a sickening 14-point, fourth-quarter collapse against the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday that dropped the New England Patriots to 3-3 through the season’s first six games, it was easy to forget that the same team was playing in a Super Bowl just eight months earlier.
The Patriots may be off to a surprisingly rough start to their 2012 season, but there is not much separating this team from the one that won an AFC Championship last season.
There is certainly reason for concern with the Patriots, not the least of which is the fact they have already had two major fourth-quarter collapses this season. Against both the Baltimore Ravens and Seahawks, the Patriots blew two-score leads in the fourth quarter.
The biggest factor leading to those major collapses has been the team’s horribly inconsistent pass defense, which has been known to give up big plays in big moments, including three of 40 yards or more in the fourth quarter against the Seahawks. After giving up 283 yards on Sunday, a season-high for Seahawks rookie quarterback Russell Wilson, the Patriots are in the NFL’s bottom five with 288.8 passing yards allowed per game.
This is nothing new for the Patriots, however. They still managed to make it to the Super Bowl last season while ranking 31st in the NFL with 293.9 passing yards allowed per game.
The Patriots will continue to lose game if they allow big plays late in the game, and that was certainly one of the biggest reasons they lost to the Giants to end last season, in that they allowed 282 passing yards, including a 38-yard pass on the Giants’ game-winning drive. The fact that they got that far, however, shows that they can overcome shaky secondary play to win games.
For the most part, there is no reason for concern for the Patriots’ offense. Even in their loss to the Seahawks, they put up a whopping 475 yards of offense against arguably the league’s best defense, a defense that had not allowed more than 300 yards in any of their first five games. The Patriots rank first in the league with 445.3 yards per game and 31.3 points per game.
The Patriots have had some issues with coming up with offense to close out games in the fourth quarter and keep their defense off the field, which has been another contributing factor in both of their fourth-quarter collapse losses. In total, though, the Patriots should be a much better team than their 3-3 record indicates.
The Patriots have had a chance to win every game they have played, and had it not been for a missed field goal against the Cardinals and a made field goal by the Ravens that was nearly missed, they could be a 5-1 team. Even with three losses, they have lost those games by a combined deficit of four points; the only team with a smaller loss deficit are the Ravens and Atlanta Falcons, and those teams have one less between them.
Currently in a surprising four-way tie in the AFC East, the Patriots certainly need to kick their season in a new gear, but it’s much too early to hit the panic button. As has been the case in recent seasons, the Patriots are going to have to rely on their offense to put up big points and yards, because their secondary has not made the necessary improvements this season, but with the NFL’s best offense, they will still win many games that way.
The Patriots are also in a position now to get on a roll and pull away with a division lead. Their next six games are all very winnable, as they are all against teams with .500 or below records, and four of those games are against division opponents, including two games against the New York Jets.
The Patriots survived by the skin of their teeth from giving up a game-winning touchdown to the Ravens in last year’s AFC Championship Game, and they did give up a fourth-quarter game-winning touchdown in their Super Bowl loss to the Giants.
The fact remains, however, that this was a Patriots team that was four minutes away from winning a championship, and needed just one more defensive stop.
The same issues that plagued the Patriots last season may remain, but with the NFL’s best offense, an improved run defense and postseason experience, the Patriots are still in position to make another Super Bowl run, especially in an AFC that currently has just two teams above .500 for the season.