The Patriots don't lose often. When they do, an APB goes out to find the reasons why.
The culprit(s) sometimes vary. Could be a unit, could be coaching decisions, could be a player implosion.
But theres a common game situation present in two of their three most recent losses and three of their six losses since the start of the 2011 season. The Patriots' offense did enough over the first 45 minutes to win the game, but when it came time to kill clock and choke out an opponent, they failed to.
Now this is worth mentioning. The Patriots haven't been blown out since November 2010 in Cleveland. When they lose, it's close (their six losses have been by 19 total points and one of those was a 25-18 loss at Pittsburgh). Thats a stat that makes all the rock-kicking over two last-minute losses in a row look a little silly. The Patriots are still the most consistently good team in the league.
But half the time when theyve lost, the strongest part of their team over the past few seasons -- the offense -- has had a chance to end it.
The Patriots offense plays without a net. That sinking feeling of seeing the New England defense come on the field late with a lead of seven or less to protect is familiar. With good reason. The defense coughs up leads sometimes.
They did it last season in Week 6 against the Cowboys. A Brady pick with the score tied at 13 in the fourth led to a nine-play, 60-yard drive that ended in a field goal, tying the game. Brady then led the Patriots to the game-winning touchdown that went 80 yards in the final five minutes and ended with a touchdown that made it 20-16.
The Patriots led 31-3 entering the fourth quarter last year against the Colts and saw that lead whittled to 31-24. Neither side of the ball draped itself in glory that day as the Colts onside kick with 36 seconds left was fielded by the Patriots and a kneeldown ended it.
Now, understand, there have been games where the Patriots offense has choked teams out. But the common thread a few of their losses is that they have failed offensively to remove the drama.
Sunday was the most recent example. The Patriots took over at their own 20 after a Ravens punt with 4:01 remaining in the game and a 30-28 lead.
They picked up three first downs (two by penalty, which meant the clock was stopped) before stalling after nine plays and two minutes. They moved the ball 29 yards. They made the Ravens burn two timeouts. A short punt by Zoltan Mesko gave the Ravens the ball at their 21 with 1:55 left.
It took them six plays and 63 seconds to move from their 21 to the Patriots 7.
A 24-yard completion to Jacoby Jones on the first play of the drive got things rolling. A 27-yard pass interference on Devin McCourty on a third-and- 9 play set up the game winner.
Defensive ineptitude, especially in the Patriots back-seven, has been a fact of life around here. So when the offense fails to kill the clock, they get as much blame as the defense because, well, thats what the Patriots defense often does.
"We talk about it all the time situational football," quarterback Tom Brady said Wednesday. "Theres red area, theres third down, theres short-yardage, theres goal line, theres two-minute and four-minute offense is critical when youre winning the game and you have to figure out a way to keep their offense off the field and still move the ball offensively, get first downs and chew up the clock. Its something that we obviously need some work on."
Does the team have a hard time adjusting from point-scoring mode to clock-killing mode?
"Its different, but at the same time its just really a shift in your mind," Brady explained. "Its the same thing on a two-minute drive or the same thing on a red area or a change of possession. Football is all about situational football and being able to adjust and adapt to the situation so that youre really able to handle it well as a team and everybody knows whats going on and everybody knows what were trying to do. The stuff we talk about and we work on, obviously when we do it well it looks great and when it doesnt, it doesnt look so good. We have a lot of things to work on and thats obviously (closing games out in the "four-minute offense) is at the top of the list."
The Super Bowl is the most memorable example of this.
At the start of the fourth quarter, the Patriots led 17-15. When they took over at their own 8 after a Giants punt, there was 9:24 left. They put together a very good drive, moving from their 8 to the Giants 44, but the missed catchoverthrowdrop by Wes Welker on second-and-11 from the Giants 44 with 4:06 left was followed by another incompletion and the Patriots had to punt.
From there, the Giants plowed downfield and ultimately scored the game-winner with 1:04 remaining.
The phenomenon goes back a ways.
In the Week 3 loss at Buffalo in 2011, the Patriots led 24-17 entering the fourth quarter. They then completed a three-and-out (the first play of the drive was at the end of the third quarter. After a Bills three-and-out, Brady got picked and the Bills tied it. Then Brady got picked again and the Bills returned that for a touchdown making it 31-24. The Patriots tied it at 31, then the Bills went 70 yards on eight plays and won with a field goal at the buzzer.
The Patriots didnt hold a late lead against the Steelers in Week 9s 25-17 loss at Pittsburgh. And they were battling back to erase a 10-3 deficit at the start of the fourth against the Giants in Week 10 and traded scores throughout the quarter so that doesnt qualify as a failure to drive.
Two weeks ago against the Cardinals, the Patriots crawled back into the game and were poised to erase an 11-point fourth-quarter deficit until Stephen Gostkowski hooked the game-winning attempt. New England lost 20-18.
We can find a game where the defense bailed out the offense as well. In Week 14 at Washington, Brady got picked at the Redskins 4 with 6:37 left and New England ahead 34-27. It took a Jerod Mayo pick on a third-down play inside the Patriots 10 with 29 seconds left to escape that day without further drama.
In Week 16 against the Dolphins, the offense killed clock when New England led 20-17 and it scored. An 11-play, 59-yard drive resulted in a touchdown that put the game out of reach.
Brady said the four-minute performance fresh in our minds and the loss brings about more scrutiny.
This is about winning, he explained it When you win, you dont get questions about the four-minute offense or stuff like that; its more What do we need to do to be better? I think thats still part of it. Its not like we sit here and look in the locker room and say, Wow, were terrible, we cant make any plays, were not even in these games. Were right in them; we just have to do a better job in certain areas. If we do that, well start winning close games. If we dont, well have a miserable year. No one wants that around here.
Adaptation and execution in the four-minute offense were stressed by Brady and Belichick.
The situation changes so you have to be ready to adapt to those situations at the end of the game, said Belichick. We talk about them every week. Theyre usually all different, to a point. Even when theyre the same, theres usually a different element to them. Thats football. Thats what makes football the great sport that it is. There are some many things that can happen at the end of the game, so many different situations. Those strategic situations have to be played a certain way, whatever your strategy happens to be. But theres an element of strategy there thats unique to this game and thats what makes it great. Do we have to adjust? Yeah, sure. But thats a weekly part of our preparation and adjustment. I dont think its anything thats foreign to us; we just have to do a better job.
Brady echoed that.
I think its just more that whether you make the play or you dont make the play on Sunday, certainly sometimes you just dont make the play, he explained. To not be aware of the situation is another thing. I think (Belichick) is always trying to coach us to be aware of the situation. Whether we execute it great or not, you can know exactly what to do and how to do it but you just dont get it done. I dont think its from us not knowing whats going on out there. I just think we need to a do a better job executing.
The Patriots return, in a way, to the scene of their crime this weekend. Their offensive inefficiency against Buffalo last year, coupled with porous defense led to that loss. Now the Patriots are headed back to Ralph Wilson trying to end a two-game skid.
Execution down the stretch offensively is critical. Because, with this defense, if the gap is seven or less and Ryan Fitzpatrick has the ball in his hands with a chance to win, that sinking feeling will be back again.
The Patriots don't lose often. When they do, an APB goes out to find the reasons why.