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Sunday, November 6, 2011

The Patriots Mystique Is Over, They've Become Just Another Team In The NFL

One of the best parts about sports in the modern era is that there are very few dominant teams, meaning that theoretically (unless it's MLB), your favorite team has a chance every season to do something special.

Gone are the days of John Wooden's UCLA Bruins in the 1960s and 70s or the Boston Celtics of the 1960s. From 2001-2008, the New England Patriots were the closest thing to a dynasty that the NFL had seen since the Dallas Cowboys in the 90s.

Eventually, the star players get older and the championship winning coaches begin to lose their touch. Well how else would you describe the current edition of the Pats? Tom Brady is no longer the best quarterback in the NFL and head coach Bill Belichick cannot simply outsmart everyone from week to week and make up for his roster's many shortcomings.

For those reasons and many others, New England (5-3) fell 24-20 to the New York Giants (6-2) this afternoon at Gillette Stadium. This is the first time since 2009 that the Patriots have lost consecutive games and it also snapped a 20-game home win streak (regular season) that dated back to 2008.

It was a strange one, look no further than the halftime score: 0-0 (the first time that's happened this season in the NFL). The Patriots' defense held up their end of the bargain (for once) throughout much of this contest but predictably crumbled when it mattered most (in the fourth quarter). It's hard to single out a single person or even group for blame since Brady (28 for 49, 342 yards, 2 TDs, 2 INTs, fumble) as much as anyone, made his share of miscues.

If you want to say that Julian Edelman, Tracy White, Sergio Brown, etc. cost New England the game, be my guest. However, keep in mind that they were all backup plans for draft picks (Brandon Tate, Brandon Meriweather, Chad Jackson) that Belichick and Co. have completely bungled in the last few years. Or in White's case, they were forced to play when a thin position (linebacker) was stretched even more due to injuries suffered by Gary Guyton and Brandon Spikes.

Through all the mistakes, Brady and his team looked like they would somehow pull it out when he hit Rob Gronkowski (8 catches, 101 yards) for a 14-yard TD on 4th-and-9 with 1:36. Wes Welker (9 catches, 136 yards) had another outstanding performance but it's clear that him and Gronk are the only two receivers that Brady can really trust. Chad Ochocinco had five targets, each more painful than the last, but he couldn't make one grab. Pathetic.

In a plot that was eerily similar to Super Bowl 42, the Pats left too much time on the clock for Giants quarterback Eli Manning (20 of 39, 250 yards, 2 TDs, 1 INT). Thanks to some big plays and costly penalties-one very shaky pass interference call on Kyle Arrington and also an inexcusable pass interference on Brown placed the ball on the 1-yard line. Two plays later, Manning hit Jake Ballard (4 catches, 67 yards) for the deciding score with only 15 seconds on the clock.

The first quarter was completely devoid of anything notable: three punts for New York, two for New England. Spikes crushed Ballard on a key third-down stop.

Brady began the second quarter with a bad pass that was intended for Deion Branch but ended up in the hands of Giants linebacker Mathias Kiwanuka (12 tackles, 6 solo). The Pats defense stood tall and forced a punt rather than allow any points on the short field.

The teams traded punts twice more before the Pats finally moved the ball on offense. Stephen Gostkowski is one of the NFL's top kickers but for whatever reason, not a bad snap or hold, he pushed a 27-yard kick wide. The Giants took a knee to go into halftime scoreless.

Two plays into the first drive of the second half, Brady topped himself with an even worse interception-this time to Deon Grant. The Giants used that momentum swing to get on the board with a 22-yard kick by Lawrence Tynes.

Three plays later, New York linebacker Michael Boley forced a Brady fumble deep in New England territory. Brandon Jacobs (18 carries, 72 yards) scored on a 10-yard TD run on the following play, 10-0 New York.

The Pats moved the ball on the next drive but had to settle for a 32-yard field goal by Gostkowski. Thankfully, this time he made the chippy.

New England's defense kept the momentum on their side by forcing a three-and-out on the ensuing drive. Obviously, Edelman screwed it up by fumbling the punt. However, Arrington covered for him by making his fifth interception of the season. It was a spectacular play as he baited Eli to throw it to Mario Manningham in the corner of the end zone.

The third quarter ended with the Giants ahead 10-3 but the Patriots were driving. Brady tied it by connecting with Aaron Hernandez for a 5-yard catch and run.

New York couldn't do anything on the next drive and had to punt. The Pats went ahead with a 45-yard field goal by Gostkowski.

When it came to winning time, Eli got it done twice while Brady only got one chance to put it away. New York went eight plays for 85 yards and Manning hit Manningham for a pretty 10-yard TD past Arrington.

With 3:03 left, three timeouts and the two-minute warning, it turned out that the Pats had too much time left on the clock. They got it down to the 15 by the time the two-minute warning took effect. After misfiring twice to Gronk, once was his fault and another one was a tough catch, Brady found him with 1:36 left.

Looking often to UMass product Victor Cruz (6 catches, 91 yards), Manning coolly went 80 yards in eight plays. New England got the ball back with 15 seconds left and no timeouts so it was basically over.

The New York Jets (5-3) pasted the Buffalo Bills (5-3) 27-11 earlier today, meaning that there's a three-way tie atop the AFC East. Wouldn't you know, Patriots at Jets is the Sunday Night game next weekend?

So much can change in the NFL in a few short weeks; the Jets looked dead a few weeks back but as always, they've found themselves and are playing better as the season progresses. Conversely, the Pats started out hot but lately, their offense isn't making nearly as many plays while the defense can't be counted on for anything positive.

I don't know why the Patriots abandoned the run so quickly when the Giants have the worst run defense in the league. BenJarvus Green-Ellis (12 carries, 52 yards) looked good and Danny Woodhead (7 carries, 26 yards) finally showed glimpses of the burst he had last season. Good luck figuring out what's happened to rookie Stevan Ridley (3 carries, 10 yards), who was playing so well at the beginning of the season.

Watching Steelers-Ravens tonight made me think even more about New England's utter lack of a defensive playmaker. Vince Wilfork is great but a defensive tackle will never make plays on the same level as a defensive end, linebacker, safety or cornerback. Who can the Patriots count on to do something defensively that's above average? Jerod Mayo is probably still playing through a knee injury but regardless, he hasn't made the leap we expected. Furthermore, Patrick Chung has shown the ability but never consistently from week to week. Lastly, what has happened to the Devin McCourty that was so damn good last season?

The second-guessing of Belichick and the Pats front office that occurred last week, should only intensify this week since the team is coming off another brutal loss that makes you the fan question everything about this house of cards that we so dearly love.

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