Survive and advance.
The New England Patriots haven't looked pretty lately, but they have added to the win column in each of their last two contests and currently hold a three-game lead over the Miami Dolphins in the AFC East standings.
The two 34-31 victories came against vastly different foes. The Denver Broncos are 10-2 while the Houston Texans are 2-10. Each game featured the Patriots coming from behind in the second half to earn the win, but the Patriots will have to clean up their performance before halftime to compete in the playoffs.
Here is what you need to know going into Week 14.
Story To Watch
In their remaining schedule, the Patriots don't face a team that currently has a winning record—the Dolphins and Baltimore Ravens are closest at 6-6—through 13 weeks of the NFL season. Can the Patriots avoid a letdown against competition that pales in comparison to the Broncos and Carolina Panthers? No worries, says Rob Gronkowski, via the team's website, when asked whether the Patriots might have looked past Houston.
No, this is a very good team. Their record meant nothing. Going out there, I have to say they've got a really good defense. They have a lot of great players, and they all play hard. That's why it was such a tough game out there. It was a hard fought game. You have to give them credit. They are a very good team.
How will the Patriots fare over the final four games?
In the NFL, there are no easy wins. Bill Belichick does a good job of keeping his team humble. I'd be surprised if the Patriots looked past an opponent, as the ailing Cleveland Browns have bitten the Patriots before.
What Needs to Improve
1. Defensive Communication
I'll be writing about this problem in depth on Wednesday during my film study, but the communication in the defensive backfield looked atrocious at first and second blush.
With all the moving parts at cornerback due to injuries, Devin McCourty has his work cut out for him getting everyone in the right spot. The defensive backs looked lost playing zone in the first half, failing to pick up and pass off receivers running into their zones.
The Patriots utilized more man coverage in the second half, which was met with far more success. If Alfonzo Dennard is able to go this week—he missed the Texans game with a knee injury—defensive coordinator Matt Patricia can feel much more comfortable putting his corners in man situations.
If the Patriots have similar lapses against the Cleveland Browns, wide receiver Josh Gordon will make them pay dearly.
2. First-Half Performance
Nothing is more exciting than a torrid comeback, especially when your team comes out on top. Counting on second-half heroics, however, is no way to go into the playoffs.
In the last three games, the Patriots have scored a total of 10 points in the first half. They could have gotten away with that anemic of an offensive performance earlier in the year when their defensive front was still intact, but it is much tougher now.
The offense is being asked to play perfect in the second half of each game—a task it has nearly lived up to. Excluding overtime, the Patriots have scored points on 13 of their 17 second-half drives over the last three games.
What happened on those other four drives? Against the Panthers, the final drive ended with a controversial no-call on Rob Gronkowski and an interception. The Broncos stopped the Patriots twice, but one drive started with a mere 11 seconds on the clock. The Patriots ran three times and punted, killing the clock, on the only drive where the Texans stopped them.
The second-half offense has been incredible, but the Patriots need to put themselves in a better position after 30 minutes from here on out.
3. Front Seven Play
With Jerod Mayo out, the linebackers have been under a microscope this season. Until the last two weeks, Brandon Spikes and Dont'a Hightower had passed their tests with flying colors. However, two poor performances against the run against the Texans and Broncos have Patriots fans grasping for answers.
Doug Kyed of NESN.com brings up a good point.
Mayo shed his fair share of blocks at the second level last year, Hightower/Spikes are dealing with OL upfield on almost every snap.— Doug Kyed (@DougKyedNESN) December 2, 2013
Comparing Hightower and Spikes to Mayo is unfair to begin with, but even more so without the help of Vince Wilfork. Wilfork routinely ate up two blockers, keeping Mayo clean to flow to the ball. Hightower, however, has guards running at him on seemingly every play.
AFC East Recap
New York Jets vs. Miami Dolphins
Geno Smith was pulled after an atrocious first half, giving way to backup Matt Simms. Simms couldn't get anything going either, resulting in a 23-3 loss to the Dolphins.
Ryan Tannehill was able to rack up 331 yards and two touchdowns through the air, with Brian Hartline proving to be too much for cornerback Dee Milliner.
EJ Manuel can lead a horse to water, but he can't make it drink. Manuel twice was in the midst of leading the Bills on game-winning drives, but fumbles by Scott Chandler and Stevie Johnson derailed his efforts. The Falcons prevailed in overtime, winning 34-31.
The Bills wasted a great day by C.J. Spiller, who ran for 149 yards and a touchdown.
The Bills (4-8) face the Tampa Bay Buccaneers next week.
The Patriots hold a commanding three-game lead on the Dolphins, while the Jets and Bills are relegated to hoping for the wild card.
The Dolphins are currently tied with Baltimore for the sixth seed in the playoffs but lose the tiebreaker due to head-to-head win percentage.
After a run on the defensive back position, the Patriots wide receiver position is now being tested. While the injuries to Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins don't appear serious, their ability is needed to keep defenses from flooding the underneath routes.
If Alfonzo Dennard is able to go next week, the Patriots secondary will be back at full strength.
All stats courtesy of NFL.com and the Patriots' official media site.