FOXBOROUGH — Through 14 games, the Patriots are scoring fewer points than a year ago (26.4, compared with 36.1) and gaining fewer yards (390.7 now, 432.4 then).
Whether the decrease has anything to do with the Patriots not using the up-tempo, no-huddle approach nearly as often is up for debate. Quarterback Tom Brady wouldn’t mind seeing more of the faster pace.
“Maybe we should do it more often,” Brady said on Wednesday, after the team’s first practice of the week in advance of their final regular-season road game, Sunday at Baltimore. “I just think we’re trying to figure out what we think is best to do to help us win. It just hasn’t really required that. But we go fast plenty of times, in those two-minute situations where we’ve done a good job.”
The frequency with which the Patriots have implemented the no-huddle is down considerably. Other than two-minute drives at the end of either half, the Patriots went up-tempo against the Saints more than anyone else. There are a lot of new skill players on offense — eight players on the current depth chart weren’t here last season — but Brady certainly sounded like he’d be in favor of speeding things up.
“Ultimately it comes down to execution. Whether you go slow or fast or somewhere in between, it’s just really a matter of what you think you need to do to execute the best. The two-minutes we’ve gone pretty fast and done a pretty good job, but that’s probably about the only time we’ve really done that,” Brady said. “You have to be able to execute no matter what you do. If you can’t make the block or can’t make the throw or can’t make the catch, it doesn’t matter if you go fast or slow.
“To run three plays and punt really quickly doesn’t do you any more good than running three plays and huddling and all that, and [then] punting. Ultimately we have to score enough points and that requires good execution and everyone being on the same page.”
One thing that hasn’t changed is the Patriots’ record. They were 10-4 after 14 games a year ago, and are 10-4 this season. A big difference: This time last year, they had already clinched the AFC East title. They’re in position to win it again for the fifth straight season, holding a two-game lead on the Dolphins with two games to play. A win over Baltimore or a Miami loss at Buffalo will give the Patriots the division crown.
Target — on his back
With tight end Rob Gronkowski out, Shane Vereen figured to be an important part of the Patriots’ pass offense at Miami, especially since he caught a career-high 12 passes the week before for 153 receiving yards, a franchise record by a running back. But the Dolphins were more than ready, holding Vereen to just three catches for 8 yards. Both numbers represent a season low.
Vereen is accustomed to being Brady’s target. But being targeted in such a way by an opposing defense? That was new.
“It’s the first time it ever happened, really, to me, and you just take away from it that you’ve got to be open, you’ve got to be able to see different defenses, and you’ve still got to be effectrive, regardless of what defense is out there,” Vereen said. “You’ve got to be able to think fast and work.”
A Rice serving
Unless he goes absolutely crazy over the final two weeks, Ravens running back Ray Rice will fail to rush for 1,000 yards for the first time since his rookie season, in 2008, when he was limited to 13 games and had fewer than nine carries per contest. In 13 games this season, Rice has been limited to 605 yards, and is averaging a career-worst 3.1 yards per carry.
Rice doesn’t sound concerned.
“The numbers don’t mean nothing. I’m worried about wins right now,” he said.
The sixth-year back from Rutgers — who has averaged 1,266 rushing yards over the past four seasons — was quick to offer an excuse for this year’s drop in production.
“I’ve been dealing with injuries this year. It is definitely very hard to play through week in and week out,” Rice said. “So when I look at statistics, I don’t worry about things [like that]. I’ve proven myself over the years, Pro Bowls and one Super Bowl. Right now I’m really focused on this year.”
To hear Ravens coach John Harbaugh tell it, not even a government agency would be able to infiltrate the Patriots organization. Harbaugh, speaking with Boston-area media Wednesday in a teleconference, was asked about Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins, a pair of Patriots rookie receivers who have each missed the last two games with injuries.
“I was really hoping you guys would provide me with some information along those lines,” Harbaugh said, referring to their practice attendance and possible availability for Sunday’s game. “Call the NSA,” was the suggestion to Harbaugh.
“I don’t think they could even crack Bill Belichick’s phone line,” Harbaugh said.
Left tackle Nate Solder (concussion) and receiver Josh Boyce (ankle) missed Wednesday’s practice, which was held inside Gillette Stadium. Thirteen others were limited, including Brady, Aqib Talib, Dobson, and Thompkins . . . Belichick started his teleconference with the Baltimore media by saying, “Are we talking football or lacrosse? I just want to be ready for this.” . . . Patriots defensive end Chandler Jones, when asked by the Baltimore media if he’s spoken recently with his brother Art, a defensive tackle for the Ravens: “I actually haven’t spoken to him in a week or two. He might call me, or he might not.” . . . Since the start of the 2008 season, when Harbaugh took over as coach, the Ravens (71) and Patriots (73) have the most wins in the NFL, playoffs included . . . The Patriots hold a 6-1 series lead in regular-season games with the Ravens. The only loss? The last time they met in the regular season, Sept. 23, 2012 in Baltimore, when the Ravens kicked a field goal to win on the game’s final play, 31-30.