The New England Patriots dug themselves into a 28-point hole on Sunday night against the San Francisco 49ers, and despite a valiant comeback, they fell just short. It was a disappointing loss, but the Pats still showed that when they're on, there is no team in the NFL that is harder to stop.
However, the mistakes and inconsistencies on both sides of the ball cost the Pats the game and possibly a playoff bye. With two games to go, there's not much left to prove. The Pats are who they are, and as long as they don't beat themselves, they'll be a very tough out for whoever they play in the playoffs.
But there's no guarantee they won't beat themselves as we saw against the 49ers.
Let's take a look at the biggest concerns the Patriots will have in the playoffs.
Brandon Spikes has been battling an ankle injury for a few weeks now, and it's to the point where he can be seen limping in between every snap. He has been on the injury report since November 9th with a knee injury, and the ankle first showed up as well on December 8th.
The Patriots run defense has clearly suffered because of it, and Spikes' already-limited ability in coverage is even more exploitable now. Credit goes to Spikes for playing through what clearly looks like considerable pain, but he's just not the same player as he was in the early parts of the year when his aggression was overpowering.
The Pats should shut Spikes down for at least a week. He's a huge key to any playoff run they're going to make, but if he's on one ankle, they're a much different team that struggles to do the most basic thing the Pats ask of their defense—shut down the run.
In 2011, Stevan Ridley fumbled in both the season finale against Buffalo and the divisional playoff game against the Broncos and then didn't see the field in the AFC Championship or Super Bowl. This year, the problem has returned with Ridley fumbling twice in the last two games.
Before the 49ers game, Ridley had only lost one fumble all year, and that was back in Week 5 against the Broncos, but the problem is popping up again at the wrong time of year.
To make matters worse, Shane Vereen got in on the action against the 49ers as well, leaving Danny Woodhead as the only Patriots running back who saw the field and didn't fumble.
Perhaps Brandon Bolden will get a chance to show he can hold on to the ball in the last two weeks. But for a team that needs to win the turnover battle as much as the Pats do, they can ill afford to keep coughing the ball up, especially from their running backs who were supposed to solve the problems of last year's lack of explosion on the ground.
It's one thing to be ineffective, but it's an entire other thing to be putting the ball on the ground.
How carries are divided up should be very interesting these last two games.
Chandler Jones is still working his way back from an ankle injury and got his first start since the Indianapolis Colts game against the 49ers, but he was invisible and ended up getting pulled in the second half for a combination of undrafted rookie Justin Francis and Trevor Scott.
Jones saw just three snaps after getting easily blocked on Frank Gore's third-quarter touchdown.
Jones missed just two games, but according to ProFootballFocus.com's ratings, that only exacerbated his downward trend since getting off to a great start early in the season. He hasn't had a positive overall grade since Week 8 against the St. Louis Rams before the bye week, also the last time he recorded a sack.
Since being a Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate after recording six sacks in his first eight games, Jones has slowly become a non-factor. Granted, injuries have played into it, but he really needs to show something in the last two games of the season.
If the Patriots are to have any hope of making a playoff run, they need Jones to return to the disruptive pass-rusher he was earlier in the season. He was an every-down player then, and he needs to find that explosive dominance once again.
Rob Gronkowski returned to practice on Friday, which is a good sign, but there's no question this team badly needs a boost that his return to game action would provide. They've gotten by offensively in the four games he's missed, still putting up yardage and points, but there's no question they're a different and much more difficult team to defend with Gronk in the lineup.
The biggest question is will Gronk still be the excellent blocker he was before the injury? What makes him such a unique player is his equal ability to catch passes and block, and it would be a blow if he was limited in one or both of those areas, with blocking likely being the more likely one to suffer.
It's hard to believe, but Gronk and Aaron Hernandez have only both been healthy in three full games this year, and really in two of them Hernandez was still limited. So for all the preseason speculation for how tough the duo is to stop, they both have only been together and fully healthy for the season opener.
Hernandez is now back to full strength, and if Gronk can come back and be his usual dominant self, the Patriots will finally be back in business, but that's a sizable "if" on Gronk.
Alfonzo Dennard's ascendance in the second half of the season has been a significant part of why the Patriots pass defense has improved. Of all the undersized scrappy right corners the Pats have started in recent years (Ellis Hobbs, Leigh Bodden, Kyle Arrington), Dennard has arguably flashed the most skill.
Pro Football Focus has Dennard ranking out in the green, an above-average ranking, for six of his 10 games this year, and four of the last five games.
He's also allowed Kyle Arrington to shift inside to the slot full time, where he has excelled as well in a scaled back role. But when Dennard went out with a knee injury against the 49ers and Arrington was forced back into action, the difference was clear. Arrington missed a tackle on the 49ers' final touchdown and showed just why he lost his job in the first place.
The trickle-down effect of losing Dennard would force the Pats to again use Arrington full time on the outside, where he has been one of the most inconsistent defenders of the last three seasons.
Dennard was spotted on Monday in the locker room with just a sleeve on his leg. Usually this is a good sign, but we'll see on Wednesday if this could be another significant injury for the Patriots to overcome.
Despite the positive impact that Aqib Talib and Devin McCourty's move to safety have had on the Patriots pass defense, there's no question that it continues to be the Patriots' Achilles' heel.
The Patriots hadn't given up a 20-plus touchdown in three weeks after giving up 11 in the first 10 games. Against the 49ers, they gave up four. So despite the positive feelings about the secondary, especially over the last few weeks, the same old problems again reared their ugly head.
For all the talk of the 49ers wanting to establish the running game, here's what they did (h/t Greg A. Bedard, The Boston Globe):
The 49ers came out and did what opponents should do against the Patriots: go wide open with a passing attack. There were completions of 11, 13, and 12 yards on the first three plays as second-year quarterback Colin Kaepernick was hardly rushed and saw his reads clearly.
When the Patriots offense can't dictate the game by scoring early, it opens up the Patriots defense to all the problems they've faced all year.
Last year's secondary play was worse than this year's, and that group managed to put it together and come within four points of a Lombardi Trophy, perhaps this year's group can do it as well. But the smart teams will clearly test them like the 49ers did, and until they prove they can stop it, they'll continue to see more of the same.
Stephen Gostkowski had one of the hardest tasks in Patriots history having to replace Adam Vinatieri but has, for the most part, done so without missing a beat since the Patriots drafted him in 2006. Despite never having to make a "game-on-the-line" playoff field goal, Gostkowski has hit almost every big kick he's faced until this year.
But when Gostkowski missed the game-winning kick against the Arizona Cardinals in Week 2, it made Patriots nation uneasy with him for the first time in his career. Two weeks later, he missed two kicks in Buffalo. In the six games since the bye week, Gostkowski is 9-of-12, which would be a career-worst 75 percent.
He has also already tied his career high for missed field goals (2006) with six.
It's impossible to project the conditions of a potential field goal in the playoffs. Who knows, maybe Gostkowski will escape with another pressure-kick-free postseason. But if it all does come down to Gostkowski, there will certainly be some Patriots fans who are a lot less confident in him than they would've been in previous seasons.
With the loss on Sunday night, the Patriots slipped to the third overall seed in the AFC, which not only means a likely Wild Card Game, but also trips to Denver and Houston pending afterward.
The Pats are well-suited to beat the Texans again, even in Houston. But the real problem that every Patriots fan knows is that Peyton Manning is more than capable of picking their secondary apart, even more so in Denver.
Now there's a little doubt that Tom Brady is equally capable of shredding the Denver defense as he did in Week 5; however, that was in Foxboro, and now the rematch will likely be in Denver. Those are two different matchups entirely.
With the crowd noise on their side, the Broncos elite pass-rushers can get the jump on the snap they need. Not to say the Patriots still couldn't move the ball on them, but the task is significantly more difficult in Denver than it would've been in New England, making it all the harder for them to keep pace with Peyton Manning.
Patriots fans have seen it far too many times. The Pats jump out to a lead only to see Manning and his offense slowly mount a comeback before taking the lead (or turning it over) right at the end.
There's no question that Manning and the Broncos pose the biggest threat to the Patriots' hopes to represent the AFC in New Orleans.