The Patriots have lost three of their last four games for the fist time since 2002. The media is having a field day declaring that the team's reign atop the NFL is officially over. Adding fuel to the fire, reports surfaced that Bill Belichick sent four players home for being minutes late to a team meeting on Wednesday, and then one of those players, Adalius Thomas, made some questionable comments to the media about Belichick the next day. Tom Brady, already with an injured shoulder and finger, now has a new injury to his ribs. Before the season started, I viewed this final stretch of New England's regular season as the "boring" part of the schedule. Carolina, @ Buffalo, Jacksonville, @ Houston. I assumed that Miami and New York would be far in the rearview mirror as the Patriots sat with 10 wins or more. Turns out I was wrong. The last four weeks of this 2009 season may be the most compelling of all, unfortunately, for all the wrong reasons.
As mild as the lateness incident with Thomas, Moss, Burgess, and Guyton may be, it's still the most drama to come out of New England's locker room this decade. The fact that it comes on the heels of some brutal losses where the team has either blown large leads or looked completely lost, only adds to the concern that all is not well in New England. The Patriots are notorious for keeping their mouths shut, focusing on the game at hand, and not killing themselves with mistakes in close contests. So far, twelve games into the season, these Patriots appear to be on the path to becoming the very antithesis of what this team used to represent. There's been far to many "me-first" moments, costly errors, and dumb decisions. Based on Tom Brady's take, there's also a fair amount of complacency and work-ethic issues in the locker room. From where I sit, I can't help but wonder if the Patriots have changed from a mindset where every game is a 60 minute battle, to one where they expect to roll over everyone simply because it's the way it was in 2007.
When the Patriots were at their apex, they weren't blowing out teams by 40. They were winning close games by three or less. They fought for every yard, played smart, and seized the moment when opportunities arised. They took advantage of the teams who were playing like this 2009 version, loaded with talent, but completely unfocused and overconfident. These next four games will either destroy this team or bring them together. Things simply can't continue the way they currently are. If there isn't a major change, these trends that have been emerging will come to a ugly head and New England will find itself in the same boat as the fallen Steelers. However, if they decide to follow Belichick's lead - come early, stay late, care just that little bit more - we could see this squad turn into the special team we've all been expecting since the summer.
First Down: Stop the Run. Against Carolina, it's that easy. The Panthers have a rushing attack that's among the league's best. If you can take that away and make them throw the football, it's going to be mighty tough for them to overtake you. Probably the biggest key to the game, in addition to having a strong presence defensively on the ground, is for the Patriots to hop out to one of their patented early leads. This will play right into their hands as it will force John Fox to abandon the run in the second half. The Patriots have been notorious for blowing those large leads, but if they can get one on Sunday, the Panthers don't have a QB that's the caliber of Peyton Manning, Kyle Orton, or even Chad Henne to throw Carolina back into the game.
Second Down: Mix it up. I've been calling out the Patriots for weeks for not spreading the ball around they way they used to do. It's become too easy for defenses to adjust to the heavy doses of Moss and Welker that New England's been serving up week after week. The Patriots lack a quality third receiver, but Ben Watson still remains a part of this team. In the Patriots hey-day, Daniel Graham and Christian Fauria were key players in the passing game. This season, it seems as if the tight end position isn't even an option when Brady drops back to pass. If Brady can start relying on Watson and Aiken to take some of the pressure off Welker and Moss, the Patriots will see the field open up for them quite a bit. In addition, Carolina has struggled greatly against the run this year. Laurence Maroney, Sammy Morris, and, possibly, Fred Taylor should get plenty of touches to keep the Panthers honest on defense.
Third Down: Just win. Bottom line, no matter how New England chooses to do it, this game is truly a must-win. A third consecutive loss could end up becoming the leak that bursts the dam. Not only that, but with the Jets and Dolphins nipping at their heels, the Patriots simply cannot afford to fall to a tie in the standings by losing what may be the easiest game remaining on the schedule. Both Sunday's game and next week's against Buffalo on the road, are critical for keeping the Patriots atop the AFC East. By the time Week 16 rolls around, the issue may have resolved itself with the Dolphins having played the Jaguars and Titans, and the Jets having faced the Falcons. However, the key this week is simply taking care of this week's business. That's defeating the Carolina Panthers and turning the team's momentum around.
Patriots 24, Panthers 14