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.
Michael Felger on Bill Belichick saying the team is focused on getting Jimmy Garoppolo prepared to be the starting quarterback Weeks 1-4
FOXBORO -- It seems like every summer the Patriots try to mix and match on their offensive line as much as possible. As players work in at different positions and work alongside different teammates, they're preparing for the inevitable injury that forces the inevitable lineup change. It's a brutal game of musical chairs for which they have to be ready.
Whether it's with first-time starter Jimmy Garoppolo's comfort level in mind or some other reason, it sounds as though the Patriots may be changing their ways during this year's training camp.
Offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia, back after a two-year retirement, said on Wednesday that a lack of continuity last season hurt the team's play up front in 2015. When the Patriots find their best five linemen, Scarnecchia plans on playing them alongside one another as often as possible.
"I think that we're gonna try to keep the guys, whoever's the first five, we're gonna try to keep those guys together as much as we can," Scarnecchia said. "It's not always practical to do that, and there's competition at multiple positions so there may be some in and out that way.
"But the thing is, if we can keep the left tackle playing the left tackle, the right tackle [playing right tackle], and try to keep the guards playing on the same side as much as we can, that'll really help everybody. There's gotta be some guys that swing around in there, because we only end up with eight or nine linemen, [but] I think it'll be fine. I really do."
The Patriots used 41 different offensive line combinations last season, according to Pro Football Focus, which was 13 more than any other NFL team.
Much of that shakeup was due in part to injuries as starters Nate Solder, Sebastian Vollmer and Bryan Stork all missed time. The hope this year, Scarnecchia explained, is that the Patriots will be able to avoid that kind of shuffling and find some consistency in their personnel that'll lead to better results.
"I think that's huge," he said. "I really do. We had so many guys playing multiple positions. We believe in continuity and trying to keep the same guys next to each other as much as we can. You can't always do that, but I think that was a huge deal last year. Hopefully we won't get into that sit this year, keep working with the same guys day in and day out, and hopefully they'll improve."
One obstacle that Scarnecchia may have in finding the right five players is that he has so many to pick from.
Of his seven tackles, there are two clear front-runners for the starting jobs on the right and left sides in Vollmer and Solder, respectively. But on the interior, the picture is more hazy. Rookies Joe Thuney and Ted Karras, and second-year players Tre' Jackson and Shaq Mason will compete for guard spots, as will former Cardinals guard Jonathan Cooper and Josh Kline, who started 13 games for New England last season. At center, Stork and David Andrews both have an opportunity to prove that they deserve to be the No. 1 man in the middle.
When camp starts, Vollmer, Jackson and Mason will all be on the physically unable to perform list, leaving reps available for their healthier teammates.
Still, it's a large group, and one that Scarnecchia likes. He said he felt each player that was able to participate in spring workouts got better over the course of the OTA period. Now is the time to build on that momentum and hope that five players will eventually separate themselves as the best.
"I mean, look, we're not building rockets," he said. "No, really. It's the truth. 'Step with this foot. Get this shoulder in there.' It's really that. That's the approach we're gonna take.
"We're going to really try to be very precise in what we do and the way we do it. And we're going to try to play as hard as we can. If we can get them to do that, we have a chance. No guarantees, but we have a chance. That's what we're after."
FOXBORO -- The Patriots, as expected, have been given a roster exemption for safety Nate Ebner. Therefore, while Ebner is playing for the USA Rugby Men's Sevens team in the Rio Olympics, his spot will not count against New England's 90-man roster.
"I’ve talked to Nate several times," coach Bill Belichick said on Wednesday. "Wish him well in his endeavor. It’s a great opportunity for him to follow his passion, participate in the Olympic Games. We’re pulling for him to bring back something around his neck."
With the roster exemption, the Patriots found themselves at 88 players on their roster. In order to fill their last two openings, they signed offensive lineman Jon Halapio and tight end Bear Pascoe, Belichick announced.
Halapio, a product of the University of Florida, was a sixth-round selection by the Patriots in 2014. He was released at the end of training camp that year, and he later landed on the Broncos practice squad in December of 2014. Before the start of last season, Halapio signed with the Cardinals. He was released on Sept. 5.
In between NFL gigs, Halapio has spent time with the Boston Brawlers and the Brooklyn Bolts, both of the Fall Experimental Football League.
Pascoe, 30, is in his eighth NFL season. He has spent time with the Giants, Falcons and Lions, primarily as a blocking tight end. In his career, the 6-foot-5, 257-pounder has caught 40 passes for 336 yards and two touchdowns in 85 career games.
Ebner will participate in the Olympic rugby competition with Team USA beginning on Aug. 6, and fellow Patriots special teams ace Mathew Slater will be paying attention.
"I’m just so happy for him," Slater said. "And I know why rugby means so much to him, and many of us are familiar with the situation with his father, and his father obviously introduced him to the game of [rugby]. So, that connection with father and son is bigger than sport itself.
"I know this means a great deal to him and we’re all excited for him. I’m just trying to figure out where I can get my Ebner rugby jersey. I’ll be supporting him and watching him along the way."