Super Bowl XLIV: Is It Time To Write Off the New England Patriots?

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Super Bowl XLIV: Is It Time To Write Off the New England Patriots?
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With the decade drawing to a close, there have already been thousands of column inches dedicated to the ultimately meaningless question of (cue dramatic music) Team of the Decade.

Chief among those candidates, based on their sudden transformation from afterthought to dynasty, is the New England Patriots.

Yet, looking at the New England Patriots team that has taken the field this year, especially on the road in the second half, you'd be forgiven for thinking the last 10 years simply never happened.

Remember for a moment that this was a Patriots dynasty built on everyone doing the little things, making the big play when necessary, and not making mistakes. New England was rarely the most dominant or most talented team, but the Pats simply refrained from shooting themselves in the foot, often winning by simply getting the right call at the right time.

But while the Patriots gave away games with a frequency usually reserved for comets and Black Swans earlier in the decade, they've done so in nearly every one of their five losses this season.

So while the question of the decade is perhaps meaningless, far more paramount to the rooting interests of those here in New England is the question of whether the Patriots have any chance of competing for another Super Bowl title this season.

In truth, the Patriots are much the same squad that decimated the Titans and Buccaneers. They're the same squad that put up an early lead against the Colts and they're the same squad that, not too long ago, was still in the hunt for a first-round bye and a short run to the title game.

In fact, in many ways they're a better team than they were a few weeks ago. In one major way, in fact: they're healthier.

With Sammy Morris and Jarvis Green seeing a more normal workload again, the Patriots were able to add depth at two key areas where health has been a question all season.

While, like most teams, they have been slowly whittled away by injuries all season, they have yet to truly lose any of their key people for the year to injury and are still relatively healthy.

But if the problem with New England is not a matter of depth, then what? Anybody with two eyes and the grace of television can see not all is right in the state of Foxboro.

It's not a matter of preparation, either. These are not teams finding a chink in the armor of the Patriots, exploiting some minuscule facet of the defense that New England cannot protect against; this is not the Miami Wildcat Game, part two.

No, in fact, the Patriots have said after each of the last two weeks that they saw little, if anything, that they did not fully expect the Saints and Dolphins to run.

And yet, New England sits at 7-5, its lead in the AFC East precarious and hopes of a first-round bye gone quicker than warm December air.

The problem with New England is far simpler than many writers think, to my eyes. It's not a matter of a half decade of poor drafts, it's not Bill Belichick suddenly forgetting how to coach, or the karma of Spygate finally catching up with Bill's legacy.

It's simply a matter of execution. Players not making plays, coaches not making adjustments.

The proof is in the box score. The Patriots have been simply unable to make adjustments at halftime and in the second half, to react and stop what opposing teams are doing.

Worse still, other teams have been able to make adjustments at key moments to stop the Patriots.

You can highlight many areas in which New England has struggled—on third down, in the secondary, in rushing the passer—but perhaps key among them is the offense's inability to get into the end zone when it gets inside the 20.

The Miami game hung on just that deficiency as Vontae Davis finally got the best of Randy Moss when it mattered, making the play that allowed the Dolphins to really confirm that the Patriots are going to need some serious work in the final four weeks of the year if they're going anywhere in the playoffs.

It was a highlight in poor clock management and play-calling as Tom Brady looked to be trying to make some last minute audible, had to rush his routine, and throw an off balance shot to Moss' back shoulder that neither seemed prepared for at that moment.

Worse, it was exactly what the Dolphins were prepared for as Davis cheated up on Moss and would've been perfectly out of position for a fade that Brady didn't have time to dial up.

Unimaginative was the only word that came to mind when I saw the play. With all three timeouts at the team's disposal and clearly on the wrong page, I never expected anything but a timeout and maybe a frustrated chin-strap removal from Brady.

Yet there he went, having so little time that he had to make that little two-stamp with his left foot in about .000042 seconds.

I just don't understand the offensive philosophy of New England right now. In the red zone the Pats have been practically unstoppable when they man up and run the ball.

In the last four weeks, seven of their 10 touchdowns in the red zone have come from running the ball.

That's not even counting the red zone touchdown Maroney gave up by fumbling against the Colts, and that's including two red zone passing scores against the Colts.

So for those keeping track at home, that's one red zone touchdown via the pass in the last three weeks compared to five on the ground.

The big play has returned to New England, as was evidenced by not one, but two long touchdown passes against the Dolphins, but the finer points of execution, especially on critical plays, have abandoned the Patriots.

Not to mitigate the weight of my own article, but while New England has lost three of the last four, they've done so against two teams that are 12-0 and the Dolphins, a .500 team better than their record, even without their top rusher.

At least now there's no confusing what New England has to do in the last month of the year: Win out, build some sort of momentum, get to 11 wins, and hope it's enough for a first-round bye.

Failing that, the road back to the Super Bowl may become impossibly steep for a New England team that seems to stumble at every rock in the road lately.

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