Five Things We Learned from Patriots Close Win Over Bills
The New England Patriots beat the Buffalo Bills 37-31 on Sunday afternoon to improve to 6-3 on the season and solidify a 2 game lead in the AFC East. As far as the standings and their schedule the rest of the season goes, it looks like they are set up for a successful second half of the season.
With that being said, their December home games against the Houston Texans and San Francisco 49ers are starting to look iffier by the week. It’s always uncomfortable to come out of a divisional win with skepticism and criticism, but the issues with the Patriots late in games seem to continue to plague them. This time they found themselves in all too familiar territory against a very obviously inferior team, only winning because Ryan Fitzpatrick acted very Ryan Fitzpatricky by throwing a game-ending interception in the end zone.
In all three of their losses this year, the Patriots had a chance to seal a win on their final drive of the 4th quarter. All three times they failed.
Yesterday, they got lucky.
Against Arizona, they scored the touchdown but missed the two-point conversion and gifted the Cardinals a rare home loss.
In Baltimore, they had a two point lead with four minutes left and not only did they fail to score to expand their lead, they turned the ball back over to the Ravens with 1:55 left in the game. The Ravens easily gained the field position to kick the winning field goal.
Perhaps worst of all, the Patriots defense in Seattle allowed the Seahawks to score two touchdowns in the fourth quarter to take a 24-23 lead. Even still, Tom Brady and the offense got the ball back with 1:18 on the clock; and they went 4-and-out to end the game.
Yesterday’s win against the Bills in Foxboro can and should be taken with a massive grain of salt; not so much by fans, but by the Patriots themselves.
For fans, a win is a win. They are a talented team in first place in their division and third place in their conference, and New England fans can all but count on this team making it to the postseason for the tenth time in twelve years.
So What is the Problem?
For the players and coaches, winning by the skin of their teeth is not really the problem. Every team has tough, hard to win games; even against second-rate opposition. The problem is that they are making the same mistakes, falling victim to the same weaknesses and coming up short at the same times.
As good as the Patriots are inherently, have they really progressed or come together as a more solid unit as the season has gone on? Or have they continued to win games nearly the same way they did last year, by relying on big plays and hot streaks and hoping the other team makes a few mistakes?
It seems more like the latter. Their fourth quarter performance and the culmination of their offensive and defensive ineptitude in the final drives of the game looked nearly identical to all of the aforementioned meltdowns that resulted in a loss.
After their loss to the Cardinals at home in week two, I raised the question of whether or not this team has the experience and mental fortitude to seal the deal late in games the way that the Super Bowl-generation Patriots did.
“The larger point though is that Brady and Belichick are no longer capable of carrying this team on their back in these situations, and that has caused this breakdown in their ability to close out games…Brady has entered the twilight of his career, and he is still easily one of the best quarterbacks in the league. Belichick is one of the oldest head coaches in the league, and he too is still one of the best in the business. But with a new regime of young talent also comes a new wave of inexperience; inexperience that might even believe they are entitled to success because of who they play for and not how they play. Tom Brady and Bill Belichick cannot and will no longer carry these teams on their backs to Super Bowls… Patriots have lost their way a little bit.”
This sentiment from two months ago still rings true. The Patriots can win. They do win. They are talented. Yet you learn a lot about a team from the ways in which they win and lose, most particularly if those ways have created a very obvious pattern that has become a systemic issue.
The Patriots only other truly close win came against the New York Jets in overtime, and that too came down to a crucial big play; when Rob Ninkovich forced a Mark Sanchez fumble and recovered it to end the Jets’ possession and seal the 29-26 victory.
Once again, a gritty win is not necessarily a bad thing. But multiple gritty wins against sub-par teams combined with some seriously inexcusable losses really muddies the belief in their ability to rise above teams like the Texans and 49ers. Especially considering their best competition this year was the Ravens, and they couldn’t beat them.
Whether the true root of the problem is coaching, player communication, a lack of experience or a combination of multiple things, the Patriots need a statement win against one of the upper-echelon NFL teams in order to really begin to progress.
So to wrap it up, here are the five things we learned about the Patriots’ win on Week 10 win over the Buffalo Bills:
- Tom Brady and Josh McDaniels need to figure out their 4th quarter offense. Despite the fact that the defense is improved, the Patriots’ bread and butter is still their explosive offense, and with everything that they do well, this is one thing that could put them over the top. With Danny Woodhead filling in nicely in Brandon Bolden’s absence, it’s time to get back to really pushing the running game down the opposition’s throats to open up opportunities for Wes Welker and Rob Gronkowski.
- Aqib Talib is the last hope for the secondary. It’s pretty obvious at this point that the Patriots’ secondary is only going to go as far as other teams let them. As Devin McCourty has proven time and again, if the quarterback is going to make a mistake they will be there to capitalize. What they need now is a guy to force the misses and mistakes; and if Talib can’t be that guy, this problem may not go away.
- Gronkowski needs more targets. Gronkowski was targeted just four times yesterday. He caught three of those passes for 31 yards and a touchdown. One thing that keeps his targets down is his ability to block and pull coverage inside to open things up for Welker and Deion Branch. Still, he has proven that he is more than just a threat in the red zone, and he rarely turns the ball over. Get the ball to this guy as often as possible.
- Brady’s out of sync with his receivers. This may sound like nit-picking, but a few too many passes landed at the ankles or over the heads of receivers yesterday that normally would have been easy receptions. This is something that has popped up every few games with Brady, and he seems to be unsure of where his receivers will be at times. This could be an issue with Josh McDaniels play calling (see #1). It would be good to see him playing out of the shotgun and in the hurry up a little more often, especially late in games.
- The defensive line needs to be more consistent. As talented as they are, the players that have been truly consistent are Vince Wilfork, Brandon Spikes and Ninkovich. Chandler Jones as a rookie has performed well, but doesn’t have the games logged to bring big plays every game. Jerod Mayo is a great leader and plays well but has had changes to come up big and seems to continue to fall short. Kyle Love is another guy who has the talent to contribute more up front, especially in pressuring the quarterback. With so little help from the secondary, they are forced to shoulder the brunt of the defensive play making. They have the personnel to do it, they just need a few more guys to help them close it out in these tight situations.