<
>

Special-teams miscues among things Patriots must correct

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The New England Patriots have won two games in a row, but as Bill Belichick sometimes says, just because a team is victorious doesn't mean that there aren't issues to address.

With this in mind, here are some areas that could catch up to the Patriots if they aren't corrected:

1. Special-teams miscues. In each of the past four games, the Patriots have had significant special-teams mistakes, starting with Chris Harper's lost muffed punt versus Denver; surrendering a blocked punt that was returned for a touchdown as well as an 83-yard punt return for a touchdown against the Eagles; a lost muffed punt by Keshawn Martin against Houston; and a lost fumble on a punt return by Danny Amendola against Tennessee. As the margin for error shrinks in the playoffs, those are the types of miscues that could end a team's season. We've seen the Patriots make significant changes on the punt protection unit in recent weeks, which has included having veteran defensive end Rob Ninkovich play on it.

2. Taking the foot off the gas pedal. Belichick stresses the importance of playing 60 minutes, but the offense, in particular, is struggling in that area. They didn't score a touchdown in the second half against Tennessee on Sunday (some of that was based on circumstance and playing the risk-reward game with a big lead), and the one second-half touchdown they had the week before at Houston cane as a result of getting the ball at the Texans' 7-yard line. Getting receiver Julian Edelman back from a broken bone in his left foot should help, as he appears to be on course to return for the playoffs.

3. Alignment issues. The Patriots have been penalized for an illegal formation in each of the past two games, with one of the infractions taking a touchdown off the board (against Houston). Those types of penalties fall into the category of "bad football" because they result From a lack of mental focus.

4. Big plays given up in the secondary. Titans tight end Delanie Walker's 57-yard catch-and-run touchdown was a terrific individual effort. At the same time, the Patriots' secondary had multiple chances to bring him down, which continued a theme in recent weeks of giving up the big play. Against Houston on Dec. 13, Nate Washington had a 49-yard reception and DeAndre Hopkins had a 40-yarder. Each of those could have hurt more if not for the Patriots having more of a margin for error because of the field position. Then on Nov. 29 in Denver, there were also 39- and 36-yard receptions surrendered to the Broncos.