At this point in the season, the Patriots absolutely have issues.
The offense still lacks a knockout punch. The pass rush is inconsistent. The secondary is short on talent and big on giving up big plays. The book on Tom Brady — hit him and he gets jittery — continues to add chapters. And the coaches have made some Andy Reid-like in-game decisions.
But those things can be improved upon, and the Patriots can still emerge as champions of the weakened AFC. And given two weeks to prepare for one opponent, the Patriots can beat any team in the Super Bowl.
But there is one looming question that will determine whether or not a Super Bowl run is possible with this group: Does it have the guts to be great?
To me, there’s a two-part answer.
For one, the Patriots need to display their long-held ability to deliver a statement game.
Sunday’s matchup against the Jets is a classic opportunity. You know Bill Belichick played up all the doubters this past week to the players, with the “nobody thinks you can do it anymore,” speeches. In the past — even recently — the Patriots have always answered with an emphatic “our critics are idiots” victory.
In 2010, the Jets came to Gillette Stadium having won two of the previous three meetings against the Patriots, and each team was 9-2.
Patriots 45, Jets 3.
Last season, the sky was falling after the Patriots dropped back-to-back games before a showdown with the Jets at MetLife Stadium.
Patriots 37, Jets 16.
If the Patriots can’t summon up one of those performances at home against an injury-ravaged and mediocre Jets squad, then there is no reason to go on to the second part of the answer. Even though the Patriots would be a long ways from done — with games against the Rams, Bills, Colts, Dolphins (twice), and Jaguars remaining — everyone would know the Patriots don’t have what it takes.
But we expect the Patriots to deliver one of their trademark statement victories against the Jets. Once they get the ball rolling against an average team, the Patriots jump on them with the best of them.
Which will leave one more answer to be delivered.
Can they close out a good team late without relying on the defense? Actually, that has been a problem against any team since the start of the 2010 season.
The Patriots have been in position to put a game away offensively 16 times. Brady & Co. have delivered just five times (31.3 percent):
2010, Week 2: Chargers trailed, 28-21, with 5:47 to play. Patriots responded with a nine-play, 80-yard drive that took 3:46 and was capped by a 16-yard BenJarvus Green-Ellis touchdown run.
2011: Week 5: Jets trailed, 27-21, with 7:14 remaining. Patriots had a 13-play, 69-yard drive that took 6:12 and ended with a field goal that made it 30-21 with 1:02 remaining.
2011, Week 6: Patriots blew a 13-3 lead to trail the Cowboys, 20-16, with 2:31 remaining. But they won the game on a 10-play, 80-yard touchdown drive.
2011, Week 9: Patriots scored 20 points on their final four possessions to take a 20-17 lead against Giants. The defense couldn’t hold the late lead.
2011, Week 16: Went on an 11-play, 59-yard touchdown drive that took 4:46 to put the Dolphins away, 27-17, with 2:56 remaining.
Here are the 11 failures by the offense:
2010, Week 6: Came back to tie the Ravens at 20 with 1:54 left, and got the ball with 45 seconds remaining and two timeouts at their 47-yard line. Patriots failed to get into field goal range and Brady was intercepted on a Hail Mary. Patriots eventually won in overtime.
2010, Week 11: Patriots led Colts, 31-14, before Indianapolis scored two quick touchdowns to cut the lead to 3 points. Patriots had the ball with 4:40 remaining and ran four plays before punting. Interception sealed the game.
2010, Week 19: Patriots led the Packers, 31-27, with the ball and 4:52 left. New England went three and out and needed a sack/fumble to hold on.
2011, Week 13: Patriots punted on their final three possessions to allow the Dan Orlovsky-led Colts to get within an onside kick recovery of having a chance to tie the game.
2011, Week 14: Patriots had two possessions to extend a 34-27 lead against the Redskins and failed. Needed a Jerod Mayo interception at the 5-yard line to seal it.
2011, AFC Championship: Patriots led Ravens, 23-20, in the fourth quarter and failed on two drives in the final 7:22 to put the game away. Needed a pass breakup in the end zone and a missed field goal to avoid overtime.
2011, Super Bowl: Patriots led Giants, 17-9, with 11:20 left in the third quarter and failed to score another point in a 21-17 loss: punt, interception, punt, downs.
2012, Week 2: Patriots led, 9-6, with 12:53 left in the third quarter and punted three times as the Cardinals took a 20-9 lead in an eventual 20-18 victory.
2012, Week 3: Patriots led the Ravens, 30-21, with 14:10 remaining. Patriots punted twice to finish a game they lost, 31-30.
2012, Week 5: After taking a 31-7 lead against the Broncos, the Patriots offense went scoreless on three straight possessions. A forced fumble by Rob Ninkovich kept it from it becoming a one-score game late.
2012, Week 6: Patriots led, 23-10, with 9:21 left and went scoreless on their next three possessions to lose, 24-23, to the Seahawks.
For the Patriots offense, which is supposed to be the bell cow of this team, that’s simply not good enough. It has to improve to show the mentality of a champion.
But first things first. The Patriots need to make a statement Sunday against the Jets to show they’re still capable of it.
Ryan may call 46’s number
No matter what you think of his bluster, Rex Ryan is one of the smartest football minds in the game. That’s why I can’t see him standing toe-to-toe against the Patriots without injured cornerback Darrelle Revis and receiver Santonio Holmes.
I think Ryan goes for broke against the Patriots.
We’ll see some weird things on offense from the Jets, but I expect Ryan to take even more chances on the defensive side of the ball, at least in spurts and to start the game.
Ryan knows the optimal way to beat Tom Brady is to get a ton of pressure with four rushers, disguise the coverages, and hit Brady so he gets jittery in the pocket.
Ryan knows he can’t get pressure with any four of his players. He has to feel the Patriots will use their run-heavy no-huddle a lot early to keep the Jets from getting their pressures and disguises set up.
Ryan also knows from film that the Patriots are limited offensively with Aaron Hernandez (ankle) and Rob Gronkowski (back) not at 100 percent. At times against the Seahawks, the Patriots looked like the 2010 and 2011 versions of themselves: not enough viable options for Brady.
We could end up seeing Ryan come after Brady with the “46” defense his father, Buddy Ryan, made famous with the 1985 Bears.
“We’re going to play a lot of that 46 defense,” Jets line coach Karl Dunbar told the Newark Star-Ledger in May. “As much as we can.”
Now is the time to stack the box with eight guys around the line of scrimmage, at least early in the game. Attack the run and Brady at the same time. Hope that you hit Brady early and speed him up for the rest of the game. Hit all of the Patriots receivers and tight ends coming off the line. Be relentless.
Of course, it’s highly risky against Brady and today’s offenses.
“A lot of the success that Buddy had with the 46 defense came when there was a lot of two-back offense,” said Bill Belichick. “It was one of the things that probably drove the two-back offense out. If you remember back when Buddy was in Philadelphia, he had a lot of trouble with the Redskins and their one-back offense.
“There are some issues there that, I’m not saying you can’t do it, but you have to work them out. Buddy had by formation a different combination and group of blitzes, so depending on what formation you were in, then he ran a blitz that would attack that formation and then when you changed formations, then he would change blitzes.”
After the Patriots swept the Jets last year, Rex Ryan had the entire offseason to copy his father’s blueprint and tailor it to the Patriots. Time to unleash something new against the Patriots. The Jets have nothing to lose.
Tagliabue a wise choice
Thought we were largely done with the Saints bounty scandal until the players had their rightful days in court to challenge the suspensions and the process, but the decision by commissioner Roger Goodell to appoint his predecessor, Paul Tagliabue, as the hearing officer for the appeal was a bit of a surprise.
Goodell has owned this story under the guise of player safety since the very beginning. He was adamant about not giving up his judge-and-jury role during the last collective bargaining agreement negotiations, so why would he give it up on this? He has shown himself to be a bit on the stubborn side since taking office, so it seemed likely that he would see this to the end.
But obviously Goodell had his reasons for bringing in Tagliabue, and it was apparent in the NFL’s press release.
“Goodell . . . has appointed former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue as the hearing officer to decide the appeals and bring the matter to a prompt and fair conclusion,” it read.
In other words: “Fine, we’ll give you the neutral arbitrator that you think you’re entitled to (that’s up for debate) to stop your incessant yapping. Let’s get this over with.”
Of course, everyone knows any decision Tagliabue renders that is less than a full vindication of the players and public shaming of Goodell will be ripped by the Players Association and taken to court.
“We have enormous respect for Paul Tagliabue,” said Peter Ginsberg, the attorney for linebacker Jonathan Vilma. “Having said that, we now need to learn whether Commissioner Tagliabue plans to provide to us the fundamental rights that Commissioner Goodell ignored.”
In the meantime, this a smart move by Goodell if Tagliabue doesn’t vacate the suspensions altogether.
Tagliabue may be Goodell’s predecessor, but he has a spotless reputation for being an independent thinker. Tagliabue had a terrific relationship with the NFLPA and late executive director Gene Upshaw to the point that owners and players thought their representative was too close to the other side.
And in New Orleans, Tagliabue is almost revered. He played a huge role in keeping the Saints in the city after Hurricane Katrina.
It’s going to be very difficult for Saints fans to believe that Tagliabue did them wrong if the players cry foul after the sanctions are kept in place in some form.
A media blitz by Pioli in KC
Two more branches of the Bill Belichick coaching/management tree look to be in serious trouble with the Chiefs at 1-5 entering the bye week. It was almost unprecedented that general manager Scott Pioli, the Patriots’ former director of player personnel, did one-on-one interviews with any media outlet available in Kansas City last week. Pioli is in the final year of his contract. Coach Romeo Crennel, the Patriots’ former defensive coordinator, has a year left beyond that. It would be interesting to know whether Pioli did the media blitz on his own to help his cause, or whether owner Clark Hunt put him up to it to begin softening the ground for Pioli’s return. What Pioli did do was to take a lot of the blame. “‘Clearly there are things we need to fix, things we need to change, things we need to improve upon,’’ Pioli said, ‘‘and it starts with me.’’ Pioli’s job is on the line for the same reason it happens everywhere now in this league: He picked the wrong quarterback in Matt Cassel, who quite clearly does not possess the elite skills to win in this league. But Pioli traded for Cassel and handed him a six-year, $63 million deal. ‘‘There’s a lot of issues,’’ Pioli said, ‘‘and that position is one of them.’’
1. How the 49ers finished off the Seahawks Thursday night: Saved all three of their timeouts in case they were needed; used two backs, two tight ends, and a receiver, so the Seahawks had only nine players in the box instead of 11; made the Seahawks burn all of their timeouts; punted 66 yards with 4.78 seconds of hang time; played Cover 1 (deep safety with man coverage underneath); didn’t play Cover 2 with two rookie safeties.
2. It will be interesting to see what Chestnut Hill native Joe Banner ultimately decides as CEO of the Browns. General manager Tom Heckert and coach Pat Shurmur both have ties to Banner from the Eagles. But you have to think the Browns must finish above .500 in the final 10 games for those guys to have a chance.
3. Andy Reid’s Eagles offense is averaging 17.2 points per game (30th) and 2.8 turnovers per game (31st). Yes, defensive coordinator Juan Castillo, whom Reid moved from being a very good offensive line coach, was the problem. That’s it. Guess Reid couldn’t fire himself after six games.
4. Dwayne Bowe wants out of Kansas City. Anybody want a lazy, malcontent receiver who will be a free agent in March? Anyone?
5. Chargers director of public relations Bill Johnston posted an article on the team’s website telling fans to “take a chill pill” because it was “one loss” after the team fell, 35-24, to the Broncos, a game San Diego led, 24-0, at halftime. Did he forget the Chargers allowed the final 17 points in a 31-24 loss to the winless Saints the previous week? Or that San Diego’s three wins are against the Raiders, Titans, and Chiefs (combined 4-13)?
Greg A. Bedard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @gregabedard. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.