Dave D'Onfrio On Football: Patriots shake off the (Rod) Rust in comeback
FOR the first quarter of Sunday's game at Jacksonville, it looked as though the Patriots had been paid a visit from the Ghost of Christmas Past - and he looked a lot like Rod Rust.
Comparisons with Rust's brief but brutal era in New England football history aren't made often these days, which for a while now have been rather opposite of the 1990 team that went 1-15 and ranked near the bottom of the NFL by pretty much every meaningful measure, but they were certainly warranted with the way the Patriots were playing.
Facing the lowly Jaguars, they allowed Chad Henne to throw for 162 yards in the first 15 minutes. They let his offense march down the field, getting in position for a touchdown, two field goals and a missed field goal before New England touched the ball in the second quarter. Tom Brady threw two interceptions in addition to missing on a couple of makeable throws when his attack did manage to move the ball. And before the Patriots got their act together, they were trailing by 10.
Ultimately they did complete the Bob Cratchit experience, and - thanks to some help from Houston - actually came away from the scare better than they'd arrived. But with just a week to go in the regular season, and on the heels of a disconcerting performance against the 49ers, the Pats aren't feeling all that merry as they head toward Christmas having survived their struggle enough to beat the Jags, 23-16.
"We (weren't) ready to go right away, and when that happens we have to buckle down and play football. Some times we did, some times we didn't," said defensive lineman Vince Wilfork. "I'm proud of the way that we responded - but at the same time, at the end of the day it won't be good enough. Plain and simple."
Brady ultimately tied Johnny Unitas for the second-most consecutive games with a touchdown pass, extending his streak to 47 by connecting for a strike to Danny Woodhead that helped his team get the game tied by the half, then another to Wes Welker that momentarily opened its lead to 10 in the early part of the fourth quarter.
But the quarterback appeared even more perturbed with the performance than the on-edge Wilfork - and it seemed to have little to do with a personal effort than 24-for-41 for 267 yards, and left him with a 73.9 that rendered his passer rating below 80 in consecutive regular-season weeks for the first time since late in 2009.
"We played pretty terrible out there," Brady said. "It came down to the wire and the defense made some plays, but it was a bad 60 minutes of football. Got out-competed out there. We were lucky to win."
He seemed to take absolutely no solace in the fact that his team had survived, had scored 20 points unanswered to play the second half from in front, and had eventually improved to 11-4.
Instead, after reportedly lighting into his teammates behind closed doors, he was focused on the production of an offense that totaled just 349 yards, third-fewest on the year, against the NFL's second-worst yardage defense: "We started slow. We didn't make any plays. We were lucky to be in it at the half, and didn't really make any plays in the second half."
He was focused on the execution: "Execution was terrible. It was easy to see, we didn't do anything."
He was focused on the effort overall: "We just didn't compete."
And he was focused on what the game says in conjunction with the struggles that initially put them in a 31-3 hole against San Francisco: "You get very concerned when you don't play well, and that's very evident in the way we performed."
The fact that the Patriots thought they played so poorly, and yet still won, says a lot about how easy this game should've been - and how much they believed that themselves. Certainly it shouldn't have come down to two fourth quarter possessions where Jacksonville was on the cusp of tying the game before Pat Chung twice made an interception to thwart the threat.
Even with the defensive secondary decimated by injuries to cornerbacks Aqib Talib and Alfonzo Dennard, the linebackers lacking because Brandon Spikes was out, and the offense starting to show signs of being thinned by preexisting ailments - 24 of Brady's 41 passes were intended for Welker (10 catches) or Brandon Lloyd (six), while Aaron Hernandez caught only one of the five balls fired his way - the Patriots weren't making any excuses for being pressed up against the wall by one of the league's lightweights.
But all was not lost Sunday. Because they did pull out the win, as ugly as it was, they left themselves in a position where Houston's 23-6 loss at Minnesota could still help them. If the Pats beat Miami next week, and the Texans lose to the Colts - in what is expected to be Coach Chuck Pagano's return to the sidelines - New England would earn a first-round bye.
And considering how much work there is apparently still to be done, they could certainly use every advantage they can get. Including the extra practice time.
"We (were) in a dogfight from the start to the finish, but we made a little bit more plays," Wilfork said. "The defense, we stepped up big in the red area today - (but) going forward if we play like this we won't win a lot of games."
Play like this and the Ghost of Christmas Future won't be much kinder.
Dave D'Onofrio covers the Patriots for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.