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September 21. 2013 11:07PM

Dave D'Onofrio's Patriots Notebook: Odds are, Bucs will stay close

The oddsmakers - and, by proxy, the bettors - remain bullish on the Patriots in today's game against the Buccaneers. Looking at various point spreads, the consensus predicts New England to win by at least a touchdown, which was also true when those lines were set earlier in the week, and it's not all that surprising, considering the Pats are 2-0 while the Bucs are 0-2.

But those records don't tell the whole story.

Patriots fans need no reminder about how tenuous their two victories have been, the first coming courtesy of a come-from-behind field goal from Stephen Gostkowski in the final seconds, and the second coming despite going scoreless in the second half against the Jets.

They could be winless if just a couple plays had gone different - just as the Bucs could be unbeaten. In both of their losses they've taken a lead into the final minute of play only to see the opposition defeat them with a field goal on the game's final play, the first enabled by a silly penalty that let the Jets get into position for the kick, and the second when they let Drew Brees and the Saints go 54 yards in the final 66 seconds.

What can't be overlooked there, though, is what Tampa's defense had done prior to that against one of football's premier quarterbacks. Before the final drive, the quarterback who ranks third all-time in completion percentage had hit on just 23 of 43 throws, a success rate of just 53 percent, and he had one touchdown with two interceptions.

He'd also been sacked four times, hit on numerous other occasions, and got little respite from a running game that was never allowed to establish itself. The only touchdown Brees' offense produced was a 56-yard completion to tight end Jimmy Graham - who had 10 catches - and that came a week after New York's lone TD came at the end of a drive that forced them to go just 31 yards after an interception.

In the end, good teams usually find a way to win, and not-so-good teams find a way to lose. After just two weeks it's too early to know in which category the Bucs will ultimately belong - but it's plenty of time to see that today should be a challenge for the Patriots.

"I feel like the more I've watched Tampa this week, the more impressed I've been with them," New England Coach Bill Belichick said Friday. "They do a lot of things well: well coached, play really good on defense and they did a good job against New Orleans running the ball, made some big plays in the passing game. A couple plays have hurt them but overall they're doing a lot of things well."

The Bucs boosted their defense in the offseason by adding cornerback Darrelle Revis and safety Dashon Goldson, so Tom Brady and his undermanned receiving corps will have its hands full. And although Tampa has yet to put it together on the other side of scrimmage, they might have as much (if not more) talent on offense as they do defense.


Vincent Jackson is a good, big, strong receiver. If traded this morning, Mike Williams would be the Patriots' best wideout today. Running back Doug Martin is averaging 105 yards per game after going to the Pro Bowl as a rookie last year. Now they get All-Pro guard Carl Nicks back for the first time since the middle of last season, and can play him with Davin Joseph at the other guard for the first time.

Their greatest weakness is the quarterback, as Josh Freeman's regression continues. That position leaves the Bucs vulnerable, and a variety of reports this week suggested there may be friction between Freeman and head coach Greg Schiano, which is said to be part of a bigger dysfunction among the team.

If that's really the case, and those distractions impact the way they've prepared or the way they've played today, perhaps the bookies will wind up being right. Otherwise, the rosters and the results of this early season suggest the final this afternoon will be closer than a touchdown.

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UNDERRATED: Matthew Slater's absence. The Patriots' special teams captain has been ruled out for today's game after breaking his hand in the Week 2 win over the Jets, and that could potentially be a significant loss. Three times on that Thursday night New York elected to not even bother having a man back to field the punt in part because they weren't expecting much of a return because of Slater's coverage skills. With a rookie punter in a game that figures to be heavily influenced by field position, not having their gunner could hurt the Patriots.


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OVERRATED: Familiarity. Belichick and Schiano are friends, a bunch of Patriots played for Schiano at Rutgers, and the teams practiced together during the preseason - but that will all matter little today, compared to execution.




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KEEP AN EYE ON. Rob Gronkowski. Graham had a big game against the Bucs, and the Sunday before that Kellen Winslow Jr. had a touchdown among seven catches. So not only do the Patriots need Gronkowski - who is listed as questionable - to help improve their efficiency in the red zone after converting just two of eight chances into TDs, but the Bucs have been susceptible to tight ends.

Dave D'Onofrio covers the Patriots for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is ddonof13@gmail.com.


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