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December 02. 2013 10:20PM

Dave D'Onofrio's Patriots Notebook: Not half bad

AS the Patriots like to point out with their mouths — and prove with their play — the duration of a regulation football game is 60 minutes. It matters not when or how the points are scored within that period, but only which team scores more. And thus far this season that team has been the Patriots nine times, and their opponents only thrice.

So it hasn't hurt them that they've been limited to one score or fewer in the first half of four of their past five games, and that in the lone exception they found themselves in a tie game with three minutes to play in the third quarter. They're 4-1 in those contests. They've extended their lead atop the AFC East. They've put themselves in position for a first-round postseason bye.

And they've begun to suggest that their struggles to make in-game offensive adjustments early in the year were the product of personnel limitations, not coaching inability, and that when afforded the full complement of his team's talent, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels is capable of counteracting opponents' adaptations in such a way that gives New England's offense a chance to come back from sizable deficits in the second half.

There were legitimate questions about that capability earlier this year, when the Patriots managed to score a total of just nine points in the third quarters of their first seven games. They kept themselves competitive enough based on their preparation and their pre-game planning, but when the enemy surged in the second half, the Pats had trouble counter-punching.

However, that track record began to turn in Week 8 against the Dolphins — which, probably not coincidentally, was the first time the Pats had both Danny Amendola and Rob Gronkowski on the field at the same time.

That afternoon, with the team facing the prospect of losing for the third time in four games, New England trailed 17-3 after the first half, then didn't help itself by going three-and-out on the first series of the third quarter. But it proceeded to score on four of its next five possessions. And the team's second-half productivity really hasn't slowed since.

In their past five games, the Patriots have scored 37 points before halftime (highlighted by 24 against the Steelers), and 133 after the break. That includes at least 17 points in every contest, and broken down per possession, they're scoring triple the number of points every time they touch the ball — 3.9 to 1.3 — in the third and fourth quarters as opposed to the first and second.

For the season the Patriots are averaging 2.1 points per possession, so their after-the-half scoring over the past five games is nearly twice as productive as they've typically been throughout the year. And it's not a mystery as to why. In terms of running the ball, little has changed in terms of efficiency; the Pats are averaging 4.4 yards per carry in those second halves, but are gaining 4.1 per haul in the first half, and 4.2 for the season.

The difference is dramatic in the air. Over the first seven games, Brady completed 51.8 percent of his second-half passes, averaging 6.2 yards per attempt, and accounting for just two touchdowns and four interceptions. His passer rating was well below-average, at 63.9.

However, over the past five tilts, Brady is connecting on 68.5 percent of his throws. He's picking up 8.9 yards per toss, with eight scoring strikes and just a single pick. His passer-rating is 117.2, which isn't merely above average, it would be the best in the AFC this season.

"I think there were some situations where they found the mismatch," Texans cornerback Kareem Jackson told reporters after the Patriots scored 27 points after Sunday's halftime to take a 34-31 win. "That is the thing with their offense. They are definitely looking for the mismatches to exploit. A couple of times with a couple of calls, we knew what we were going to get and we weren't able to prevent it."

Some of the difference is certainly attributable to Gronkowski, not only because of the attention he commands, but because since returning he's played at a level equivalent to 99 catches, 1,400 yards and 11 touchdowns when projected out over a full season. But the big tight end has been available to the Patriots in the first half of these recent games, too, four of which the Pats have returned to the locker room trailing by at least two scores.

So has Amendola, so has Julian Edelman (and his team-leading 70 catches), and so has at least one of the team's rookie receivers. The availability of the Patriots' preferred personnel certainly explains the uptick in overall production, and accounts for the fact that despite their slow start the Patriots were once again up to ninth in the NFL in yards per game, as well as seventh in points.

But the numbers say something has been changing within the games, too — and so when Houston defensive end Antonio Smith suggested after the Patriots beat his team for a third straight time on Sunday that it was as though someone was spying on the Texans, saying there was something "fishy" about the way New England seemed to know what the defense was about to do, McDaniels should've been flattered.

There may be no bigger compliment from a defensive player to an offensive coordinator than that, the suggestion that espionage is the only explanation for a game plan so impressively adapted and adjusted to what the opponent was doing. No doubt, it was a comment born of frustration from Smith — and it is a frustration felt likewise by the Dolphins, Steelers and Broncos, all of whom have been victimized recently as McDaniels and Brady, with all their weapons finally at hand, have figured out what the Patriots need to win with their offense.

And if they can ever manage to do it for the full 60 minutes, that offense just might be unstoppable.

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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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