FOXBOROUGH — Watching and waiting as their team pulled off improbable wins the past three weeks has likely left many Patriots fans with a quickened heartbeat, if not a sore throat from imploring the players, whether from a seat at Gillette Stadium or in their living room.
Tom Brady acknowledged this week that the comebacks have been “a lot of fun,” and have given the Patriots a measure of confidence.
But he also agreed that while the victories against Cleveland, Houston, and Denver were exhilarating, they’ve masked some of the Patriots’ deficiencies: slow starts and first-half holes they’ve thus far been able to climb out of.
New England has trailed at the half in five of its last six games, against Miami, Carolina, Denver, Houston and Cleveland, getting outscored, 44-14, in the first quarter and 84-37 in the first half.
But the Patriots have been able to adapt in the second half. They’ve outscored opponents, 73-41 over the last six games in the third quarter, and 87-35 in the fourth quarter and overtime.
There isn’t an easy answer for why the Patriots have been getting out of the blocks so poorly, though Brady gave one reason this week.
“I think that we try to figure out reasons why we’re starting slow and not being able to score a lot of points and one of them is the turnovers,” he said. “All our turnovers have been early in the game.”
Over this extended first-half swoon, the Patriots have committed at least one turnover in the first or second quarter in all five of the games they’ve trailed at the midway point: Brady threw a first-quarter interception against the Dolphins; Stevan Ridley lost a fumble in the red zone against the Panthers; Brady had first-quarter interceptions against both the Texans and Browns;, and then there was the first quarter against the Broncos, when it seemed no one in a Flying Elvis helmet could hold onto the ball, with Ridley, Brady, and LeGarrette Blount fumbling .
All led to points for the opponent.
“It’s not like we’re turning it over four times a game, we’re just turning it over once or twice, and against Denver there were three times there in the first quarter,” Brady said. “A lot of it is just us executing better. I’ve said before after these games, it’s not like there’s any special plays that we’re calling. It’s just that our execution needs to be better as players.
“I mean, [if] we’ve got guys open, we’ve got to hit them. The first play of the game last week [against Cleveland], I had [Rob Gronkowski] open in the seam, I’ve got to hit him. Early in the Miami game, I threw an interception; you can’t do that. Not if you want to get out to a lead.”
As Brady has noted, falling behind early puts pressure on the Patriots to be nearly flawless in the second half — or, as the case was against the Browns, over the final 16:25, as they were down 19-3 late in the third quarter.
“I think anytime as a football team you can play from ahead, you can control a lot of different things,” Matthew Slater said. “The pace of the game, how the game’s going to be played; you can almost get a team to be one-dimensional in some cases, so you can definitely dictate a lot of things when you’re playing with a lead. You’d much rather play from ahead in any situation you can.”
The problem would be more costly in the postseason, of course. Playoff teams are going to be better at closing out games, unlike Houston or the Browns.
Denver froze up — pun intended — in frigid Foxborough last month, but has outscored teams 113-61 in the first quarter and 241-169 in the first half of games this season; Kansas City has outscored opponents in the first quarter, 82-41, and has outscored opponents, 194-113, over the first half.
The Bengals and Ravens, both in the playoff hunt, have also outscored opponents in the first half. The only AFC playoff team that hasn’t is Indianapolis.
There’s been a lot of attention paid to the slow starts around Gillette, and Slater knows the streak has to end.
“Listen: At some point, if we keep digging ourselves in holes like that, we’re not going to be able to get out,” he said. “It’s going to be huge down the stretch for us to play well early and I think it’s just about execution and coming out with energy and executing at a high level early.
“It’s not something we’re not trying to do or something that we’re not aware of, we harp on it a lot at this point. Hopefully we can put it together soon.”