New England Patriots: No Longer Amongst NFL's Best

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New England Patriots: No Longer Amongst NFL's Best
(Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

Very good and great: Two compliments that can mean two very different things.

Greatness can only be applied to the very best. In the NFL, the teams that win Super Bowls and consistently perform under pressure are generally deserving of the greatness taglike the New England Patriots during the first half of this decade.

A very good team will make the playoffs, generally always give their opponents headaches, and cause opposing coaches to worry. However, when push comes to shove, they may not capitalize when they should, or deliver in pressure situations.

That is the difference between a great team and a very good team. The great teams find a way to win, regardless of the circumstances, while very good teams find a way to win most of the time, but they lack the win-at-all-costs killer instinct that the great teams posses.

Five weeks into the 2009 season, New England finds itself in the second tier of the NFL. That is, the Patriots find themselves amongst the very good teams in this league.

In yesterday's showdown with Denver, New England showed that, while they need to be respected, they can still be beat. They also showed that they do not have the absolute killer mentality that past Patriots teams possessed; the mentality that they are going to make you pay for any little mistake you make.

In fact, New England left many opportunities on the table yesterday; opportunities that could have won the Patriots the game and pushed them to 4-1 instead of 3-2 (in case you are wondering, the difference between a 4-1 record and a 3-2 record is astronomical).

For starters, the obvious miscue by New England was Stephen Gostkowski's missed field goal. It's an obvious blunder because it was 17-17 at the end of regulation. If he makes the kick, the Pats win 20-17.

Gostkowski is a very good kicker in this league. After all, he represented the AFC in the Pro Bowl a season ago.

However, when it was crunch time with the game on the line, he hooked what could have been the game winning kick just past the post, hitting the small flag at the top of the field goal post.

It's the most obvious and probably the most blatant error the Patriots made. But that doesn't mean that it was the only one, and just because it is the most obvious one doesn't make it the most telling blunder.

Offensively, New England was able to move the ball against the NFL's top defensive unit (despite what many people seem to think about the Broncos, Denverand its tremendous defenseare absolutely for real) fairly well, putting up 17 points and gaining a total of 305 yards.

However, for a unit that was supposed to be the heart and soul of this team coming into the season, there were several blunders that absolutely contributed to Denver's comeback victory.

One drive in particular stands out.

Pinned deep in its own territory on a drive that began late in third quarter, New England was forced to punt. Denver was set to obtain some pretty good field position and would have an opportunity to tie the game at that point.

Unfortunately for the Broncos, Darrell Reid ran into Patriots punter Chris Hanson, providing the Patriots with a fresh breath of life and another opportunity to put together a drive.

It is difficult to jump start a drive inside your own 10-yard line (New England began at its own four). There is little room to operate, and the defense is playing with additional intensity, knowing the offense is more vulnerable than usual, as they are playing with their backs up against a wall.

Sometimes, three plays and a great punt is the best a team can hope for in that situation.

However, New England was given a second opportunity, one that it seemingly wasted, as they were forced to punt once again after four plays.

Thankfully, Denver seemed to be intent on giving New England as many second chances as they could. For the second consecutive punt, the Broncos were tagged with a penalty. This time, Bronco Richard Quinn was flagged for a neutral zone infraction.

First down Patriots.

Here's the scenario: Denver has gift-wrapped New England two first downs by committing two ticky-tack penalties. In the past, this is where New England's killer instinct would kick in. Maybe the 2004 or 2005 Patriots wouldn't have scored a touchdown, but there at least would have been three points tacked on to the scoreboard.

The funny thing is that those Patriots offenses were not nearly as loaded or prolific as the 2009 version.

Despite Denver's best efforts to sabotage its own comeback attempt, New England was forced into another punting situation, and this time, Denver was able to avoid the flag.

Granted, it was a great punt and Matthew Slater downed it inside the Denver 5-yard line, putting the Broncos in a bind. But the fact that New England got two drive-extending penalties and came away with nothing is not a good sign.

The greater concern for the New England offense was that they scored zero points in the second half. 

Going into the half, it is generally well known around the league that a 17-7 lead is not a safe one. A field goal and a touchdown and the game is tied.

With that being said, the Patriots offense wasn't able to put anything together. The description of the drive above was the most obvious example of the offense's inability to move the ball, but there were other moments as well.

In the NFL, a team cannot go scoreless in the second half of an evenly matched game and expect to emerge victorious.

Granted, the Denver defense is very good, and they made many plays throughout the game that stymied New England's offensive momentum.

They deserve all the credit that comes their way.

However, the Patriots had their opportunities.

And they failed to take advantage.

It's that simple.

While the New England offense certainly can carry some blame for this loss, the defense is not off the hook either.

No, the New England offense didn't help them out all that much throughout the second thirty minutes of football on Sunday, however, there were a couple examples where Denver's offense seemingly had its way, methodically moving down the field without much of a challenge from New England's D.

Following the aforementioned Patriots drive, Slater was able to down Hanson's punt at Denver's two-yard line, bottling up the Broncos and giving the Patriots defense a very favorable situation to work with.

There were 98 yards between Denver and the endzone. All New England had to do was stop them.

Granted, that is easier said than done. There is a reason Kyle Orton, Knowshon Moreno, Brandon Marshall, and Eddie Royal all get paid millions of dollars to play offense for the Denver Broncos. They are very, very good at what they do.

However, one cannot help but think that, if this was the 2004 Patriots, at some point along those 98 yards, the defense would have stepped up and made the plays necessary to force Denver into a punting situation.

That was 2004.

Right now, we are playing in 2009, and the 2009 version of the New England defense allowed Orton to orchestrate a 98-yard touchdown drive that consumed 4:38 of the clock and resulted in a touchdown pass from Orton to Marshall to tie the game.

The defense broke.

And they broke again when they let Orton and his mates take the ball at the beginning of overtime and drive the ball to New England's 22-yard line, giving Denver the opportunity to win the game with a field goal (which it did).

If this was any of New England's Super Bowl teams, this most likely doesn't happen. If Denver converts on that 98-yard drive, they probably wouldn't have driven so easily on New England in OT.

That is, if the Patriots were great.

But they're not, they are very good; and there's a huge difference.

New England is very good because they can hang with the better teams in the league (Baltimore and Denver), they can move the ball on offense, and they have a generally stingy defense that can hold most teams in check when they play up to their potential.

However, they currently lack a killer instinct and they don't have the ability or resolve to step up in the most crucial moments and deliver the big play.

The Patriots never were able to put the Broncos away on Sunday, and it showed in the final score.

Up 17-7 going into halftime, another touchdown could have iced the fate of the Broncos (in retrospect, a field goal would have iced the game). If the defense could have made one stop on either the final drive of regulation or Denver's lone overtime drive, the Patriots are likely 4-1 going into week six.

But they're not, and Denver deserves credit.

It's probably unfair to compare the New England Super Bowl teams and today's Patriots. After all, the roster is totally different at nearly every position on the field.

However, the players that composed those Super Bowl rosters had the intangibles along with the talent to be considered great. These current Patriots players seem to have the talent and plenty of intangibles, but they also seem to be missing something; that indescribable trait that separates the very good from the great.

Can New England become a great team in today's NFL?

Yes, they absolutely can. New England needs to improve its timing and execution offensively and continue to make strides on the defensive side of the ball.

When everything is clicking come November and December, we could very well be looking at one of the best teams in the league. The Patriots have arguably the best head coach in the game today, and he has assembled a fantastic staff, one that can very well turn this team into one of the best.

But they're not there yet. They are one or two steps behind the very best teams in this league.

The New England Patriots are 3-2 instead of 4-1. They are very good instead of great.

While on paper it may not look like much of a difference, the differences between a very good and a great team are significant, and Patriots fans saw that on the field against Denver on Sunday.

New England is right there, and they can run with anyone. But they are one step to slow, one stride short of the best teams in the NFL.

Things will change throughout the course of the season, hopefully for the better. Right now, New England has a very good team that can make the playoffs.

But they are not great and they are not the best.

Denver reminded Patriot Nation of that, and it doesn't feel good.

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