By: Steve Balestrieri
The New England Patriots escaped Jacksonville win a lackluster 23-16 win over the lowly Jaguars on Sunday looking far from the dominant offensive team that rolled through most of the regular season.
The Patriots (11-4) are a beat-up, tired team right now and their performance on Sunday showed that. After back-to-back national games against the Texans and 49ers, they showed little spark on either side of the ball initially against Jacksonville (2-13).
Those previous two games, especially the SF game have taken their toll on this team and on the 49ers. Think not? Look at the Niners defense on SNF look like they were running in cement overshoes against Seattle after playing 92 snaps in New England the week before.
Another slow start offensively: The Patriots offense, facing the 31st ranked unit in the Jaguars should have had a field day. Yet for the second week in a row, they came out of the gate sluggish and slow and unable to mount anything and turned the ball over on their second offensive play.
Tom Brady looked far from the surgeon who carved up the 49ers in the second half of Sunday’s game and was hit more often than in that game. Brady was sacked three times and hit nine times against Jacksonville. He was sacked three times and hit seven the week before.
“We didn’t compete,” Brady said after the game. “It was a bad sixty minutes of football.” Brady completed 24 of 41 passes for 267 yards, with 2 TDs and 2 INTs, easily his worst game ever against Jacksonville, a team he routinely torches.
The tomato can run defense of the Jags is second worst in the NFL giving up 148 yards per game yet the Patriots could only manage 103 on the afternoon. Worse, the Jaguars played mostly nickel all day with an extra defensive back, basically daring the Patriots to run as they’ve done all season on teams that try to slow down the NE passing game.
This was an easy mismatch for the Patriots offensive line, yet it didn’t play out that way. Jacksonville was winning the battle at the point of attack most of the game and their anemic pass rush looked very effective yesterday, forcing Brady off his spot by bringing pressure up the middle.
Defense missing too many starters: The defense started poorly as well, missing starters at both corners and at MLB with Brandon Spikes out, Jacksonville scored on its first possession (their first in 25 games) on a drive that looked ridiculously too easy.
But after a horrible first quarter that saw QB Chad Henne throw for nearly half of his game high 340 yards passing, the defense adjusted and played much better. Jacksonville scored on three of its first four possessions but would only manage three points the rest of the way.
Not that it was easy or pretty, but the defense got the job done. In the second half they forced three turnovers on interceptions by Henne when he stopped resembling Peyton Manning and started to look like…..well Chad Henne.
His first was on a horrible decision by Henne when Marquice Cole had undercut an out route by Justin Blackmon and had perfect position. Devin McCourty was right behind Blackmon in tight coverage and Jerod Mayo was bearing down from the inside. Rather than just throw it away, Henne tried to force the ball into a ridiculously tight space and Cole had an easy pick.
Chung steps up: The other two interceptions were by S Pat Chung, remember him? Jacksonville made down to the Patriots 1 yard line on a potential game tying drive when hit with a false start. On second down Henne was sacked by Donta’ Hightower. On third down he was pasted by Chandler Jones just as he was releasing the ball, forcing it to float over the middle. Chung picked it off and making some nifty moves, returned it to nearly the 30 yard line.
The Patriots were unable to run out the clock and with the running game ineffective, the Patriots were forced to throw. Brady was sacked for a loss of 10 by Tyson Alualu. Jacksonville would get a final chance. Henne moved them to the Patriots 12 yard line and facing a 3rd and 10 with just 5 seconds left, Henne threw up a prayer that was easily picked off by Chung to finish off the game.
Health a big question going forward: But with all the players out on defense and even playing hurt, (Aqib Talib was holding his hip after nearly every snap), it was the offense that appeared more beat up. Aaron Hernandez looked like a shell of his normal self and is clearly not close to physically where he needs to be
The Patriots offensive success is predicated upon the play of the offensive line. They couldn’t assert their will against one of the worst defenses in the NFL on Sunday. Logan Mankins, and Dan Connolly are not 100 percent physically and LT Nate Solder was pushed around frequently.
While Rob Gronkowski should return to action, albeit in limited fashion next week against Miami, he’s been missed. Not only in the pass receiving game, but in pass blocking as well as run blocking. This is a unit that needs to recover and quickly.
Wes Welker….pay the man: Another player beat up and far from completely healthy is Wes Welker, although you’d be hard pressed to see it in the score sheet. Welker gutted out another typical Welker performance: 10 catches, 88 yards and a touchdown. He even ran an end around for 9 yards and did he usual punt return duties, good for 3 returns for 42 yards.
In a game where the Patriots were dinged up and missing pieces, it was the two smallest Patriots Welker and Danny Woodhead who stepped up the biggest. Welker scored on a 2 yard touchdown pass from Brady and Woodhead tied the score in the first half at 13 on a great display of balance, keeping upright and going in from 14 yards out on another Brady touchdown pass.
With Gronkowski and Edelman out hurt and Hernandez hurting, where would this team be without Welker? Like the energizer bunny, he takes a licking and keeps on ticking. Taking a beating over the middle and doing whatever is asked, he always answers the bell. The team needs to take a serious look at finding some middle ground this off-season and sign him to a contract where both sides are happy.
We all get he’s not “Megatron” or Larry Fitzgerald, but he continues to put up big numbers and does the dirty work underneath. Five seasons of over 100 catches and yesterday he broke another of Jerry Rice’s records with his 18th game with 10 receptions or more. Just pay the man.
Miami…and then what?: The Patriots finish out their season at home on Sunday against Miami who were eliminated from their slim playoff hopes against Buffalo even though they won.
The team still has a slim chance at a bye game if either Houston or Denver or both loses their finale. But that would first require the Patriots take care of business and win their game against the Dolphins.
But with Denver playing Kansas City, the chances of their losing seems remote. Houston is traveling to Indianapolis but the Colts playoff position is locked regardless of the outcome. This game now takes on a vastly more important tone to Houston than the Colts as they’ll be fighting for home field advantage throughout the playoffs including a bye week.
So things may not be working out in terms of the Patriots getting a bye week, but this is the NFL and we’ll see how it plays out. But one thing is for certain now, this team could really use that week off now. How important are those two field goals, a Patriots miss against Arizona back in Week 2 and a Week 3 Ravens miss that was good for three looking now?
Listen to our Patriots 4th and 2 Podcast at blog talk radio as the writers from PatsFans.com discuss the latest on Patriots news as well as Dolphins pre-game preview and the Jacksonville post-game wrap, Wednesday at 12 noon.