SEATTLE -- Close to three weeks ago, after the Patriots failed to close out the Baltimore Ravens, I took a deep look at the team's recent failures to lock things down at the end. Specifically, the Patriots vaunted offense. Three games later andthey've failed twice more in closeout situations. And it's getting to the point where the Patriots are either going to blow teams out or tighten up at the end. Seize. Gag. Choke. The defense is what it is. Flawed in the secondary, susceptible to stupidity. The offense? It's the league's best with the league's best quarterback. It should be able to play keepaway in the final minutes. It has the horses. Too many of them, maybe. And so it was on Sunday, with two chances to shut down Seattle and win a game in which they outplayed the Seahawks, the Patriots spit the bit. First, they took over with 7:21 remaining and -- after picking up two first downs and burning 3:14 -- they punted. They got a quick three-and-out from Seattle. At that point, if you were a Seahawks fan, you had to be beside yourself. Not only did your offense manage nothing -- throwing out-of-bounds downfield on third-and-3 -- you were giving the ball back to the league's No. 1 offense. And the Patriots -- who hadn't gone three plays and out this season prior to Sunday -- went three-and-out. Seattle got the ball back with 2:38 left. The rest is ugly history. Last week, it was a Stevan Ridley fumble that ended the Patriots' first closeout drive. This week, it was a little of everybody.This wasn't the Seahawks making otherworldly plays. There was no Manning to Manningham here.There was nosingularly great defender bending the game to his will. This was the Patriots. Screwing up. "They didn't do nothing," said Deion Branch. "Everything, all the mistakes made on the field were by us. They were self-inflicted mistakes. As the game went on, they really didn't do anything to stop us. The flags, the interceptions, the dropped balls, things of that nature. That's stuff that we control."Some of the decisions made byTom Brady were mystifying. His throw to Branch when the wideout was running down the seam in the third quarter never should have been thrown. Not only does Branchstruggle to outrun defenders, he's small and doesn't elevate well. And Brady underthrew Branch -- a cardinal sin the quarterback rarely commits because he knows that's where trouble lives. After the pick,Brady'sdisgusted reaction seemed to indicate he felt the same way. Prior to that play, the Patriots had gains of 12, 15 and 5 yards. "We never really took 'em out and we had the opportunities," said Branch. "We had turnovers, defensive things. It was like we never finished them when we had the opportunity and it was there." Asked about the apparent pass interference on him that went uncalled on the Patriots final drive while leading, Branch said, "That's how it goes. I'm one of the last guys that'll complain. There were a couple in the end zone that were flagrant. But I spoke to the guys and that's football. It's hard for them to see everything on the field."Brady didn't bristle at the suggestion the Pats lack a killer instinct. But he did try to defend the offense a bit, saying, "We did last week against Denver. I thought we made some plays at the end to do it. We just didn't do it this week."They really didn't. And this isn't a mixed bag, either. Whether it's a Stephen Gostkowski miss against the Cardinals or Ridley's fumbles or Brady's poor second half or Wes Welker failing to make a great catch in the Super Bowl when a great catch was needed, there are breakdowns on the regular. "There's 11 guys out there," said Logan Mankins. "We gotta do it as a unit. Everyone's gotta be on the same page and doing things the right way and sometimes not all 11 are doing it."We had chances in the red zone right before half we don't score," Mankins pointed out. "We were down there again and turned it over. We had our chances and we didn't score enough points. We shoulda been in the 30s and we didn't get it done. Faltered on four-minute again at the end of the game. When it was time to make plays we didn't make 'em." The Patriots could be 6-0 very easily. The margin of loss is very nearly as small as it can be. Yet this is a Patriots team that -- in close games -- finds a way to lose. These titans of situational football, a true post-free agency dynasty in the same way the 49ers were in the '80s and '90s, is time and again failing in the clutch. What else do you call that other than choking? They are being outperformed at the end by lesser teams who -- given their victory celebrations -- know they are lesser teams. Branch said, "Regardless of what you see on paper, we gotta win the games, we gotta be able to finish the game and that starts with mistake-free football."For a franchise that so often found a way to win over the past decade, the current Patriots excel at finding a way to lose.
Scott Zolak said on Pregame Live Sunday that the Patriots are better-suited to survive a season-ending injury to Rob Gronkowski than they were a season ago.
Zolak said that given the health of Dion Lewis, Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola and the signing of Chris Hogan, the offense has more stability at other positions to make up for the loss of Gronkowski, whose season is over due to back surgery. As for the tight end position, Zolak said he feels the Patriots traded for Martellus Bennett to protect themselves against scenarios like the one they currently face.
“This offseason they [acquired] Martellus Bennett, I think for this very reason: to prepare for what really happens year after year, is some sort of issue comes up with Rob Gronkowski and you have to play without him,” Zolak said.
Bennett was questionable with an ankle injury for this week’s game, but is expected to play. Asked about the health of Bennett, Zolak said that he believes the tight end is good to play, but that his importance to the team with Gronkowski out means the Pats will need to be careful.
“I think he’s healthy enough to get through about 30-35 snaps,” Zolak said. “They’ve got to balance him now moving forward.”
FOXBORO -- Logan Ryan goes into Sunday's game with the Rams coming off of arguably his two best games of the 2016 season. Coinciding with those performances against the 49ers and Jets has been a more permanent shift for the fourth-year corner into the slot.
Ryan began the year as an every-down player, playing as one of two starting corners along with Malcolm Butler. But in Week 7, his playing time dipped. He was on the field for just 31 of 73 snaps against the Steelers as Eric Rowe took over as a starter.
Belichick admitted that mid-season -- with Ryan, Rowe and Justin Coleman all vying for snaps -- the team was in a "transition period" in terms of figuring out how to deploy its corners.
"We were kind of in a little bit of a transition earlier in the year with the secondary, and Logan in particular, outside, inside," Belichick said. "I think the last couple of weeks he’s really given us a good level of communication, of run force. He’s made several tackles in the running game, plays off of the edge. But again the overall communication and consistency in there has been good. We’ll try to build on that. So I think that’s been a positive for us here over the past couple of weeks."
It's been a shift for Ryan, who helped the Patriots lock down receivers like Houston's DeAndre Hopkins and Denver's Demaryius Thomas last season on the outside. But when asked about his changing role during the week, he said he welcomed it.
"It's cool with me, man," he said. "I'll take whatever they give me. And I'm trying to do it at a high-level. The thing about being inside is there is a lot more communication that doesn't go noticed. I'm closer to [Dont'a] Hightower, closer to Devin [McCourty], getting things out to the corner, getting things out to the front.
"I just love the freedom in there to blitz, to cover, to drop in zone, read the quarterback, cover guys in the slot. I just think the versatility in there works well for what I try to do in being versatile. It's fun."
It's not a totally foreign gig for Ryan. He's seen practice time at safety, in the slot, and outside since arriving to the Patriots as a third-round pick in 2016. But in order to pick up a few tricks of the trade inside this season, he's studied tape of Arizona's Tyrann Mathieu and Denver's Chris Harris -- two of the best slot corners in the league.
Whatever he's doing is working. Ryan has seen 11 targets over the last two weeks. Though seven of those have been caught, they've gone for only 46 yards. He also has three pass breakups in that span, including two against San Francisco when he was tasked with matching up with slot man Jeremy Kerley.
Though he may not be seeing close to 100 percent of the team's defensive snaps as he was earlier this season, he said he's working to be as effective as possible whenever he is called upon.
"I'm a player, man. I've got to play when they ask me to play," he said. "The coaches have been doing it for a long time at a high level. It's their job to figure out the snaps and how to use the personnel. I'm just trying to be as versatile as possible to get as many snaps as possible. When I'm asked to go out there, I just try to make it a positive and go out there and be disruptive and make plays on the ball and get the ball-carrier down. I'll let the coaches worry about that. I just got to control what I can control."
On his fluctuating workload he added: "It can be challenging but we play a team sport. I've played team sports my whole life, and they are all about sacrifice. It's not track and field where it's all about you. It's about what's best for the team and doing what's best for the team. Some days that might be more, some days that might be less, but at the end of the day it's about getting wins and trying to compete at a championship level, which I've fortunately been able to do in the past and I want to continue to do. There's no better feeling in the end when you know that you sacrificed for the team and the team counts on you as well."
Belichick left open the possibility that Ryan could shift back to the outside, but it sounds like the change could be one that the Patriots roll with for the stretch run.
"I think he’s really done a good job in there," Belichick said, "of playing not only the slot position but again the communication, the decision making, some of the adjustments that come from that inside spot that have to relate to linebackers, sometimes the end, certainly the safeties. There are a lot of moving parts in there that a good experienced player at that position . . . it doesn’t show up on the stat sheet. It doesn’t show up necessarily on film but in terms of the overall operation, the overall communication and smoothness of the defensive play and help everybody else play better. It’s definitely there and he’s done a good job of that."
Ryan and Belichick spoke about Ryan's playing-time situation as it was being altered, and just as the coach appreciates his player's openness to the move -- which Patriots Insider Tom E. Curran noted here -- the player understands what it means to be a professional and focus on that which he can control.
Facing the prospect of unrestricted free agency, Ryan's future is somewhat uncertain. But he indicated that all he can do in order to help himself is what he's asked.
"Show up to work every day and figure out how to get better, figure out how to help the team, figure out how to maintain my job," Ryan said of his approach. "We've got a lot of young talented players in our room, a lot of young talent in the league, and the Patriots are always a team that's trying to improve and not settle at all. So I'm just trying to do what I have to do to play here and thrive here, and to help the team win, and to help my family and at the same."