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Dave D'Onofrio's Patriots Notebook: Pats win, but effort is far from elite
New England Patriots defensive lineman Rob Ninkovich, top, sacks New York Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez during overtime of their NFL football game in Foxborough, Mass. Sunday. (REUTERS/Jessica Rinaldi)
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- ALTHOUGH they entered Sunday with as many losses as wins, and with the same mediocre record as the rest of their division — and much of their conference — the Patriots were still considered by many to be among the NFL's upper tier. Just ask the experts in Las Vegas, at least one of whom placed New England's odds of winning the Super Bowl at 5-to-1 entering Week 7, just a fraction behind the 4-to-1 49ers for the title of favorite.
Sure, New England had three losses, but they were by a total of just four points. As that suggests, they were just a few plays away from being unbeaten. They still had Tom Brady. Still had Bill Belichick. Thus, goes the logic, they still deserve to be considered elite.
Pity the fool who still thinks that now.
This morning the standings show the Patriots alone atop the AFC, thanks to a 29-26 escape job of a victory over the rival Jets at Gillette Stadium. And ultimately it's the wins and losses on which they will be judged, so they deserve credit for that triumph. A week away from the midpoint of the season, 4-3 is a whole lot better than 3-4.
But better isn't the expectation in these parts. Around here, only the best is good enough. And yet again Sunday the Patriots showed they're a long way from being worthy of that distinction.
Elite teams don't continue to blow two-score leads in the late stages of the final quarter, as New England did Sunday for the fourth time this season, when it allowed New York a touchdown and two field goals over the final 5:44 of regulation.
Elite teams don't go backwards when given the chance to put the game away by picking up a couple of clutch first downs, or repeatedly fail to execute when presented an opportunity to protect a late advantage.
Elite teams don't make mistakes like fumbling a kickoff, committing offensive pass interference, or leaving giant holes in their zone defense in the game's pivotal moments.
Simply put, elite teams don't struggle to put away the riff-raff like these Patriots do. And until they can figure out a way to reverse the trends that are fast becoming traits, it's im possible to classify them in that category — and they recognize as much, even as they insist that Sunday's result brought more satisfaction than relief.
“We had our ups and downs and in the end we just made enough plays to win the game. I'm proud of the team,” coach Bill Belichick said afterward. “In the end, we did enough good things to win. Some of the things we did to put ourselves in that position can — and obviously need — be better.”
There was a lot that could've been better Sunday, when Belichick's Patriots were slowed by a surprisingly stout Jets defense — gaining just 333 yards before overtime — but leading 23-13 into the third quarter thanks to Devin McCourty's 104-yard kickoff return for a touchdown and the safety that resulted from a bad exchange from New York quarterback Mark Sanchez to running back Shonn Greene.
Generally the Patriots' high-powered offense was held in check, with Brady throwing two touchdowns to Rob Gronkowski, but consistently struggling to connect with outside receiver Brandon Lloyd (one catch on nine targets) or establish the running game. Meanwhile, the defense allowed the much-maligned Sanchez to throw for more than 300 yards, and it could've been more if not for his habitual inaccuracy.
When the Jets went ahead 26-23 with 97 seconds to play, it looked as though the Patriots were going to be pinned with a loss they deserved — but ultimately they came up with the plays necessary to win. Brady moved the ball 54 yards in five plays to get Stephen Gostkowski in position for a 43-yard equalizer at the end of regulation. Then the Patriots marched again to align the kicker for a 48-yard boot in overtime.
That put the onus on the defense, according to the NFL's new overtime rules, and soon enough Rob Ninkovich knocked the ball free from Sanchez and fell on the fumble himself. That gave New England its walk-off win, and allowed them to leave feeling good about themselves and their 2-0 divisional record.
“I don't care how you win. Just get a W,” said defensive lineman Vince Wilfork. “You can't be (ticked) off how you win. Sometimes you play this game and you want to blow people out. It's not like that all the time. We made enough plays to win the ball game, and that's the only thing that matters right now.”
“It's about doing your job and doing a better job of it,” Brady added. “It comes down to a few plays. We had opportunities last week (in Seattle), we had opportunities against Baltimore, we had opportunities against the Cardinals — and when you make the plays you win the game.”
Sunday it looked as though they were about to let those opportunities slip away again. In fact, they did — but this time the clock allowed them a chance to redeem themselves, and they did that. To their credit, that at least should be acknowledged as a sign of growth, of progress, and maybe of some mental toughness. All of those will be needed moving forward, as the season starts moving quickly toward its most critical months.
“It's a building process,” Brady said, “and playing your best football at the most important times.”
That's precisely what the elite teams do.
Dave D'Onofrio covers the Patriots for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.