Even after losing to the rival Jets Sunday, the Patriots still have outscored five of their seven opponents, and their plus-25 point differential is fourth in the AFC.
They’ve built that 5-2 record, good for a one-game lead in the AFC East, despite some noticeable holes. Injuries have taken away key players on offense and defense, Tom Brady is having the worst statistical season of his career, and the Patriots have struggled to score touchdowns inside the red zone, usually one of their strengths.
Maybe the biggest flaw has been their performance in the third quarter. Combining points scored in all seven games, the Patriots have at least 14-point advantages in the first, second, and fourth quarters. But they’ve been outscored, 44-9, in the third quarter, a staggering statistic for a division leader.
The latest example came Sunday at MetLife Stadium, where the Jets used a 17-0 third quarter to turn a 21-10 halftime deficit into a 27-21 lead heading into the fourth quarter. The Patriots couldn’t do much of anything: Brady was sacked and fumbled on the first play of the third quarter (he recovered it himself), then threw an interception on the next play that was returned for a touchdown. The Patriots followed with three-and-outs on their next three drives (total yards: 1), before finally moving the ball on their last drive of the quarter, which spilled into the fourth.
The Patriots had a pair of fourth-quarter field goals to force overtime, but it was their play in the third quarter that flipped the momentum. Instead of extending a halftime lead and maintaining control, the Patriots quickly coughed up the lead, then were forced to play catch-up.
It’s a theme that’s been common all season. The Patriots have yet to trail at halftime: Five times they’ve led, and twice they’ve been tied, against the Bengals and Falcons. But in three of their seven games, they’ve gone into the fourth quarter staring at a deficit.
“The third quarter has been an area that we haven’t done very well in, and we’re going to need to certainly focus a lot of our attention on that, and come out and have a good idea of what we want to do and execute our offense the same way in the third quarter that we try to do in every other quarter,” offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said Tuesday, during the team’s weekly coaches’ teleconference. “That was something that we didn’t do as well as we wanted to, and I’ve got to do a better job of trying to put us in positions to make some plays coming out of halftime.”
The numbers are striking. The Patriots have scored 37 points in the first quarter, 61 in the second, and 45 in the fourth. Not only are they scoring the fewest amount of points — by far — in the third quarter (three Stephen Gostkowski field goals), but they’re giving up more points in the third than in any other quarter. Opponents have scored 23 points in the first quarter, 27 in the second, and 30 in the fourth. Now they have 44 points in the third quarter, on five touchdowns and three field goals.
Every team heads to the locker room at halftime and talks about making adjustments for the second half. Great coaches — Bill Belichick certainly qualifies — make the necessary adjustments, more times than not.
Are the proper adjustments not being made by the Patriots this season? Or are their opponents simply doing a better job of making them?
“I think our process has really been the same in terms of trying to look at what we’ve done, what the defense has played us like, what their calls by personnel or situation may be, and try to make sure that we put out a game plan for the second half, just like we do in the first half, accordingly,” McDaniels said. “Some teams make a lot of adjustments, some teams don’t. I don’t believe Sunday was a situation where there were a lot of dramatic changes in the third quarter. We’ve just got to find a way to play better.”
McDaniels was asked if there have been any similarities in the team’s third-quarter struggles.
“I don’t think there’s been one consistent theme. I think that there’s no magic formula for any team to come out and do well, whether that’s the beginning of the game or the third quarter,” he said. “I’d love to say that there’s a personnel grouping or a style of play or certain types of play calls that could ensure us a certain level of success, but I don’t really believe that that’s the case.
“I know ultimately whatever we choose to do, we’ve got to put our guys in a position where they can execute and succeed, so I think we’ve just got to keep grinding away at it. It’s not for lack of effort on anybody’s part.”
What the third quarters have done is make for some pressure-filled fourth quarters. Six of the Patriots’ seven games have been decided by 7 points or fewer, a 23-3 win over Tampa Bay in Week 3 the exception.
“Every game doesn’t have to come down to the last play. It would be a lot easier on some of our hearts and blood pressure if we could play more consistently over the course of 60 minutes,” Belichick said. “Yeah, sure, some of those close games could have definitely been better handled. Certainly the Atlanta game comes to mind, where if we had done some things better that it wouldn’t have come down to that.”
The Patriots outscored the Falcons, 3-0, in the third quarter of that Sept. 29 game, which they won, 30-23. The week before, the Patriots outscored the Buccaneers in the third quarter, also 3-0. The other five games, the opponent has had the upper hand for the first 15 minutes after halftime.
Can the Patriots reverse the trend?