Just imagine how good the Patriots would look if they played a full sixty minutes.
A quick review of the previous four: In Game Nine, New England ran away from Pittsburgh, 55-31, after allowing the Steelers to tie it at 24 in the third quarter. Down in Carolina, Luke Kuechly and the Panthers held on for a 24-20 win (you know what we’re saying). The number 24 came up again vs. Denver, as New England proved overly hospitable in spotting the Broncos a 24-0 lead at halftime, then scored 31 unanswered points to squeeze out a 34-31 heart-stopper in overtime.
(I have a dear college friend named Chuck. He’s a Colorado native and lifelong Broncos fan. Let’s just say the tenor of our game-time tweets took a drastic turn midway through the third quarter, so much so that one would think Tom Brady’s first name was an expletive.)
Down in Houston, the Texans (2-9 entering the game) came to play, bolting out to a 17-7 halftime lead and rolling over New England’s defense until a couple of Houston drops and Patriots stops helped the visitors eke out a 34-31 win. New England went 3-1 for the quarter, one win better than our 2-2 prediction that factored in a potential Denver loss.
Now it’s December, so, as a shopping mall Santa might say, time to get it done.
The Patriots host the Browns next week, then travel to Miami December 15. They have a Sunday-nighter in Baltimore December 22 and wrap up the season with a 1 p.m. tilt at home vs. Buffalo December 29.
Some of the issues we’re looking at heading into the home stretch:
Houston, We (Oh, You Know The Rest): Not sure if it was a hangover from the Sunday spectacle vs. Denver, or maybe an ode to a certain high school film set in Texas, but the Patriots defense looked Dazed and Confused in Houston. Missed tackles, missed coverage, and a tendency to get pushed aside combined to make quarterback Case Keenum seem otherworldly and running back Ben Tate resemble a bionic Arian Foster. Lousy to watch for Pats fans, and – they have to hope – an aberration.
Let’s just move on.
An Enigma Wrapped Inside A Ridley: In Games Nine through 11, running back Stevan Ridley dropped more balls than a classroom full of eighth-grade boys. A fumble inside the red zone at Carolina took away at least a field goal attempt, while his turnover vs. Denver put the Pats into an early 7-0 hole. (Not helping him is the fact that all four of his fumbles this season have been lost to opponents.)
WEEI.com’s Christopher Price has gone over this topic, but it’s worth reviewing. During Ridley’s rookie season, he fumbled once in 90 touches (1.1 percent). Last year, he dropped the ball four times in 296 touches (1.4 percent). This year, he’s fumbled four times out of 144 touches (2.8 percent), leading to his benching in Houston. The top concern remains: how reliable can he become, especially in the playoffs?
Well, this tendency can change, and we can look to New England’s own Kevin Faulk as an example. Faulk had 11 fumbles in the first three years of his career, breaking down this way: three in 79 touches in 1999 (3.8 percent); six in 215 touches in 2000 (2.8 percent); and two in 71 touches in 2001 (2.8 percent). In Faulk’s final 10 seasons, he fumbled just 14 times in 3,673 touches (0.4 percent).
Have to wonder what running backs coach Ivan Fears prescribed Faulk 12 years ago, and whether it will work again.
Shane Of Events: Well, we thought the return of Shane Vereen could provide a spark to the offense. He’s done just that, giving New England the multi-faceted option out of the backfield they’ve lacked since Vereen hurt his wrist at Buffalo in Week One. He made an impact upon his return at Carolina, catching eight passes for 65 yards. He followed that up with 18 touches (10 carries, eight catches) for 91 total yards against Denver. Down in Houston, he added 15 touches for 75 yards and his first TD of the season.
Ghost Is The Machine: We’re not saying kicker Stephen Gostkowski has become automatic, but a glance at his numbers show his consistency. The Ghost has hit eight of nine kicks over the past four games. His lone misfire came on a 55-yard attempt in Houston, forgotten after he made two 53-yarders in the fourth quarter. He’s now 28 of 30 on the year (93 percent) with a long of 54.
Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia: Kudos to linebacker Dane Fletcher for his inspired play in sub packages, including seven tackles and one forced fumble vs. Denver. Fletcher, an undrafted college defensive end out of Montana State, has always shown solid athleticism and will be called upon in certain defenses when slower ‘backer Dont’a Hightower becomes a liability. Of late, Hightower has had about as much effective coverage as a Brazilian bathing suit.
Fill Collins: Another linebacker who has filled in well recently, rookie Jamie Collins had 10 tackles against the Broncos, doubling his previous highest output (five at the Jets). He seemed to display his versatility vs. Denver, combining with Fletcher to blitz up the middle for a sack, then knocking the ball out of Wes Welker’s hands on a third down pass attempt during Denver’s final possession in OT. Collins still seems to be finding his way (he looked out of place at times in Houston), but his physical abilities will keep him in the mix as he learns the position.
Jones-ing For Trouble? Thanks to intrepid Patriots reporter Mike Reiss of ESPN Boston for his heads-up on the troubling fact that starting defensive end Chandler Jones – he of the 10.5 sacks in 12 games – is playing the same position on field goal units that Rob Gronkowski did last season. You remember when Gronk broke his arm and saw more medical professionals over the past year than a “General Hospital” viewer? Putting a key player into a non-key role just seems to open him up to greater risk.
You know who’d be great in that FG role? (Insert non-starting player’s name here.) That guy would do the job.
A Running Joke: Giving up 103 yards rushing in Carolina and 108 vs. Pittsburgh seemed competitive. During the Denver game, however, New England’s defense doled out more yardage than Mood Fabrics. (Yes, I watch “Project Runway.” Don’t judge, people.) Allowing the Broncos to rush for 280 yards looked rough, but – with the Patriots losing starters Vince Wilfork, Tommy Kelly and Jerod Mayo – they’re going to have some difficult weeks, depending on their game plan (gearing to stop the pass vs. Denver, for example).
Houston had 121 yards on the ground on 28 rushes, an average of 4.3 yards per carry. Too much for comfort, but less than New England’s weekly average allowed (140 yards per game) and right around Houston’s average (116.8 yards, 4.4 per carry). As porous as the run defense has been, Pats watchers may have less faith in their pass D after the Houston tug-of-war.
To Arrington Is Human: Cornerback Kyle Arrington? Solid slot corner with quickness and strength. But as a cover corner on the outside? Let’s just hope for Alfonso Dennard’s speedy return.
Oh. Line: Over the years, Tom Brady has gone out of his way to praise his offensive line. They had a solid outing in Texas, but it’s hard to say they’ve played consistently well this season. While the Patriots have been able to run the football against some teams, Brady has been under as much pressure as the stitching on Gronk’s t-shirts. While the quarterback has met most challenges these past four weeks, that pressure will only increase. Ryan Wendell, Logan Mankins, et al need to continue keeping their boy upright.
The main reason for Brady’s improved stats of late?
Catchers ‘N’ The Why: Health and experience. Having Danny Amendola and Gronkowski on the field together, along with Julian Edelman, makes the short-range passing game as dangerous as ever. Getting the aforementioned Vereen bump in production helps. Before their recent injuries, rookies Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins pitched in when needed, opening up myriad opportunities for the passing game to succeed. They’re two players to watch going forward, as their health will lead to more options for their QB.
Venga Aqib: Boy, it’s nice to have cornerback Aqib Talib on this defense. His lackluster performance (and uncharacteristically hotheaded behavior) down in Carolina notwithstanding, Talib remains the Patriots’ top guy to put on an opponent’s top guy. He contained Demayrius Thomas with four catches for 41 yards and one TD. For whatever reason, the Patriots tried zone coverage vs. Andre Johnson through much of the Houston game, resulting in an eight-catch, 121-yard day for Johnson.
Again: game planning. Go figure.
Good Knights, Sweep Dreams: If the Pats are going to go 2-0 this year against AFC East rivals the Dolphins and Bills, it will have a lot to do with their Rutgers contingent. New England currently has three Scarlet Knights in the defensive backfield, as veteran safety Devin McCourty mentors rookies Duron Harmon and Logan Ryan. Harmon has acquitted himself well, especially considering his selection as a third-rounder this spring was about as well-received as buffalo wings at an IBS convention. The rookie safety had three tackles before Game Nine, but accumulated 20 tackles in the past four games, plus an interception vs. the Steelers. For his part, Ryan had a pass breakup and a key interception vs. Denver, plus an interception at Houston.
Pats Excel At Division: Speaking of the AFC East, New England now sits atop the division by three, four and five games over Miami, New York and Buffalo, respectively. A pretty good spot to be with four games remaining.
Predictions for the final four games? Sure. Let’s say they beat the Browns and Miami but stall in Baltimore. If they need it, depending on seeding, they win vs. Buffalo. So, 3-1 this quarter for a regular season record of 12-4.
Chris Warner can be reached at email@example.com or @cwarn89 on Twitter.