FOXBOROUGH — There they were, the sons of Josh McDaniels, with the game in their hands with 5:39 left in the fourth quarter.
The Patriots led, 23-20 with the ball at their 21-yard line. Closing time.
Time to bail out the patchwork and overmatched defense — by Mark Sanchez and the Jets? — and send Rex Ryan and Co. back to New Jersey with an exclamation point.
Tom Brady broke the huddle and the Patriots went:
■ Offensive pass interference by receiver Brandon Lloyd;
■ Brady, running for his life after backup right guard Nick McDonald got smoked by Muhammad Wilkerson, threw a pass that should have been intercepted by Jets cornerback Antonio Cromartie;
■ A 4-yard run by Stevan Ridley;
■ Incomplete pass to Wes Welker.
Four plays. A net of negative 5 yards.
Thanks for coming out, guys.
Oh, sure, the Patriots ended up winning in overtime, 29-26. The offense put together two 54-yard drives that ended in field goals — to tie it and win it.
But is anyone running a victory lap after that win?
It would be one thing if the Patriots played one of those letdown games that every team has once in a while. Those are understandable.
This is no rare occurrence. This is a pattern. The Patriots’ offense has shown that it lacks the ability to finish off games. And if you’re going to keep leaving it to the Patriots’ defense, you’re playing Russian roulette.
So far this season, the Patriots are 0 for 5 in opportunities to finish the game.:
Denver. Win after a Rob Ninkovich forced fumble.
Jets. Win after a Ninkovich forced fumble.
“That’s not the way to play offensive football,” Brady said of the fourth-quarter drive. “We can’t really put ourselves in that situation. We all have to do a better job of executing our plays. There’s no easy way out. It’s not like there’s a special magic play that you save for those situations. It’s about doing your job and doing a better job of it.”
The Patriots are just not doing a good enough job at it.
There are many factors. The biggest is probably a lack of execution on the part of the players. It hasn’t been good when it’s needed the most.
There’s no question that the health of tight ends Aaron Hernandez (back) and Rob Gronkowski (back/ankle) is a huge factor. The offense was supposed to run through Hernandez, but his ankle sprain in Week 2 has rendered him, for now, an average player when he’s available. The Patriots need him at full health to be at their best.
And Gronkowski lacks the explosion and physicality he had last season, after offseason ankle surgery and in-season back and hip issues.
The other factor has to be the return of McDaniels, the offensive coordinator. He quite obviously does not have the pulse of what this offense can hang its hat on, so the lack of an identity permeates throughout the unit.
You can feel it late when they break the huddle.
“How are we going to close this game out, with the uncoverable Hernandez and Gronkowski not at full strength?”
A collective shrug is the answer. And now the default feeling with this team in that situation is, “They’re not going to get it done.”
It used to be: “Say goodnight, suckers.”
Brady doesn’t know what the identity is. “Um . . . it’s tough to say. It’s tough to say,” Brady replied.
Shouldn’t that be the first sign that the Patriots need to go back to the drawing board and say, “All right, we stink in four-minute offense. It’s embarrassing. Let’s go back to basics and start by finding out what we can do”?
“I’m sure if you asked teams and they said yes, it would probably change over the next nine weeks anyway,” Brady said about not knowing the team’s identity. “I think you continue to go do the things that you’re doing well. You’d love to figure those things out in spring camps but it really doesn’t happen that way. You have some teams that you play and situations that you play, and players that are healthy or not healthy and schemes that you run and you boil it down to what you’re good at. It’s only October.”
The problem is, this isn’t a new problem. Dating to the start of the 2010 season, the Patriots are 5 of 17 in games when they could either close the game out, or win the game with a comeback.
“You’re right, that’s not a norm for us,” receiver Deion Branch said. “It’s all about execution and taking advantage of the opportunities. We don’t like to look in the past but history is what it is.’’
Former offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien looked like the reaper at 5 of 12 (42 percent), compared with McDaniels’s 0 for 5.
Is McDaniel not being exactly comfortable yet part of the problem?
“We know what the game plan is,” Branch said. “Every game plan is different. This one was totally different than the ones we’ve had in the past. We were trying to run a lot of different things out of our two-tight [end] set. And we have the personnel to do it with the guys that are in this locker room. We know exactly what we want to do, it’s just all about execution.”
And, as Branch pointed out, it’s about not letting it get to that point.
The Patriots led, 23-10, after a Jets punt and got off to a promising start with two first downs. And then there was a 1-yard run on first down at midfield.
Second down: Play-action bubble screen to Welker that didn’t fool anyone for minus-2 yards.
And then McDaniels doubled down with another one of his patented deception plays: fake jet sweep to Welker, backside screen to Danny Woodhead for another 2-yard loss.
I know Chip Kelly and the University of Oregon have helped the turbo no-huddle — which was nonexistent against the Jets for some reason — but evidently somebody’s watching too much film on the Ducks.
It’s time, again, for the Patriots and McDaniels to stop trying to outscheme the opponent and just worry about themselves.
Step 1: Figure out what exactly it is that you’re good at. Are you a running team? Are you a play-action team? Is it better to spread out the opponent and let Brady be Brady?
Step 2: Drill those plays to the point where the execution doesn’t fail in the fourth quarter.
Because what you’re doing now is not near good enough. The Patriots may be able to emerge out of the slop that is the AFC right now, but they need to be able to count on their offense to close these games out and become a champion.
Brady’s right, it’s only October.
But January is right around the corner, and the Patriots’ offense has a long way to go.Greg A. Bedard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @gregabedard.