Just a bad day at the office? Or a sign of deeper issues and more trouble ahead?
Tom Brady, who was hard on himself for throwing two costly interceptions, stepped back for a big-picture view.
“We’re in a decent spot,” he allowed. “If you want to win consistently, you’ve got to do things well consistently, and we just haven’t played winning football for the last two weeks.”
Indeed, the outlook for the Patriots’ season has changed dramatically in that time – first with a 30-24 overtime loss at Denver, and then in Sunday’s stinker at home against Philadelphia. The Patriots lost both games after leading by 14 points, becoming only the fourth team in the NFL to do that over the past 10 seasons.
Talk of a possible undefeated season now seems like a distant memory with the Patriots at 10-2 and tied with the Broncos and Bengals atop the AFC. Based on the tiebreaker procedures, if the season ended today the Bengals would be the No. 1 seed, followed by the Broncos and then the Patriots.
The Bengals close the season by hosting the Steelers, visiting the 49ers and Broncos, then entertaining the Ravens. The Broncos host the Raiders, visit the Steelers, then cap things off with back-to-back home games against the Bengals and Chargers.
As for the Patriots, they travel to play Houston on Sunday night, return home to host Tennessee and then finish with two straight road games, at the Jets and Dolphins.
“We’ve got a pretty important game coming up, so I think that’s where we’re at,” Brady said. “We can’t do anything about what happened [against the Eagles] or last week, just like we can’t do anything about the ones before that. I think we’ve got to just play better football. That’s what it comes down to, and each of these games are important.”
Two weeks ago, the idea that the AFC would go through Gillette Stadium seemed like a safe bet. No longer.
As for the top issues facing the Patriots, the obvious one Sunday against the Eagles was special teams.
It’s out of character to see them give up a blocked punt for a touchdown, but Eagles safety Chris Maragos surged between rookie Geneo Grissom and fourth-year linebacker Darius Fleming late in the second quarter for a block that was scooped up by linebacker Najee Goode and returned 24 yards for a score. Even more unusual, that was followed in the third quarter by allowing Darren Sproles’ 83-yard punt return for a touchdown.
“We’re not going to turn on one another and point fingers, but needless to say we’re very disappointed,” special-teams captain Matthew Slater said. “We feel like we hurt our team.”
It would be a surprise if that continues, just as it’s hard to imagine Brady continuing to be as careless with the football as he was on the interception that Malcolm Jenkins returned 99 yards for a touchdown in the third quarter, or as he was on the ill-advised deep heave that was intercepted two series later.
It was just a bad day in those areas, and because the Patriots seldom have them like that, it makes it all the more surprising.
So perhaps the real reason for concern is what has been happening along the offensive line, where the Patriots have not dictated play the past three games. Even in a win over the Bills on Nov. 23, Brady was pressured at alarming rates.
Yes, the offense obviously misses tight end Rob Gronkowski (right knee) and receiver Julian Edelman (left foot). But this is a team that prides itself on “next man up” and resourceful game plans, so the injuries are too easy of an excuse.
The same is true on defense, where the loss of linebacker Dont’a Hightower (left knee) has showed up the past six quarters, particularly against the run. A sturdy run defense was something the Patriots had been able to count on when they were ringing up win after win earlier this season, but their tackling hasn’t been consistently sound.
So in one respect, what unfolded Sunday against the Eagles falls into the bad-day-at-the-office category, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t some significant issues to resolve if they are to get things back on track.
As those issues have surfaced, specifically over the past two losses, the Patriots’ standing in the AFC has been altered significantly.