AFTER TOPPING the 40-point plateau for the fifth time this season on Sunday, not only have the Patriots scored a league-high 442 points, but they’re once again on an historic pace.
If New England averages 29 points over its last two games, it will reach 500 regular-season points for the fourth time in the past five seasons. No other NFL team has done it more than three times in history.
The Patriots rank eighth in yards from scrimmage. They’ve gained the fourth-most first downs and committed the second-fewest turnovers. They’re sixth in third-down efficiency and in passing production. They don’t rate highly in the run game, but have still scored more rushing touchdowns than 23 others.
Yet when Tom Brady looks at his attack, particularly the way it’s played over the past month, he sees a need for improvement.
And he’s right.
“Our execution offensively, I think we can do a lot better than what we’ve been doing these last few weeks, and we’ve talked a lot about that,” the quarterback said Wednesday. “It’s frustrating for all of us when we’re not scoring the type of points that we’re capable of doing.”
Winning has a way of suppressing frustration. It’s hard to be too upset when your team has won three of four, extending its run to nine of 10, and sporting an 11-3 record that has it in position to enter the AFC playoffs as the No. 1 seed.
But Brady’s view of what the Patriots offense has done since posting 42 points at Indianapolis is hardly the insatiable nitpicking of a perfectionist. It’s a reflection of the inconsistency and missed opportunities he sees when reviewing the film.
Over the past four games, and discounting those drives that were limited to kneeldowns, New England has averaged 6.3 plays and 36.8 yards per possession — both up a tick from its season-long numbers of 5.9 and 35, and both of which would rate among the top teams in the league for the full season.
The problem is that while the averages look good, the Pats aren’t doing a great job of capitalizing when things are clicking, and at the same time they’re having too many of the quick drives that can be killers in the postseason.
The Patriots have run at least 10 plays on eight of their 42 offensive series over the past month. Only two of those have resulted in touchdowns, one capping a 12-play romp against the Packers, and the other finishing a 93-yard march against the Lions. Three long series against the Chargers, which combined for 29 plays and 214 yards resulted in field goals.
And all three of Brady’s interceptions over the past four games have killed possessions where the Patriots were moving the ball effectively, all ending series that had featured at least six plays and eaten up at least 42 yards.
The drives that add pressure, however, are the short ones, and 24 of the Patriots’ last 42 possessions have drained less than two and a half minutes off the clock, with 20 of those lasting four plays or fewer.
To their credit, some of those are the result of the quick-strike capabilities that can cure quite a few ills. Over the past month, the Pats have three touchdowns drives of one or two plays, and five times have reached the end zone in less than three plays.
But the 11 three-and-outs are what irk Brady. So are slow starts, and New England’s nine first-quarter series have featured five punts and a pick. On another it settled for a field goal after moving the ball 89 yards, getting all the way to the San Diego 1.
“We like to start fast, and we talk about that every week. It’s pretty frustrating when we don’t,” Brady said. “We try to do things to get us going, and get our best plays, and you talk about the plays you want to run early — and we just haven’t done a good enough job of stringing enough plays together in order to score points.
“You just don’t want to fall behind. It’s hard to fall behind in this league and expect to come back and win. Your margin of error just gets less and less as you go, so we’ve got to focus quite a bit on that.”
The margin of error will only get smaller from here forward, with the one-and-done postseason looming, and with a couple of challenges before then. The Bills and the league’s fourth-stingiest defense, which just dominated Aaron Rodgers’ Packers, are coming to Foxborough next week. And before then, the Jets aren’t to be overlooked.
New York may be 3-11 and playing out the string for a lame-duck coach. But they have a history of getting up to play the Pats, they have given up the NFL’s sixth-fewest yards, and they have a front seven whose talent is evidenced in the team’s No. 4 rank against the run.
When the teams met in October, at Gillette Stadium, the Jets limited the Patriots to just 16 first downs. And while New England used Chris Jones’ field goal block to seal a 27-25 victory, it should also be remembered that the decisive touchdown was aided by a brutal punt that set the Patriots up with possession just four yards from midfield. The Pats gained just 110 yards in the second half that night, punting on three of six series, and could be fighting injuries this week, with Julian Edelman (concussion) and LeGarrette Blount (shoulder) limited Wednesday.
“I think we need to play better than we did the last time we played them,” coach Bill Belichick said. “I just don’t think that will be good enough; barely was good enough last time. I don’t think it will be good enough this time.”
His quarterback would likely agree, for both this week and thereafter.
“They really test your communication and certainly execution is something that we look on all our past games we’ve played against them and said, ‘Gosh, our execution just wasn’t very sharp,’” Brady said, “so we’ve got to be very sharp this week.”
Dave D’Onofrio covers the Patriots for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is email@example.com.