Curran: Pats playing with fire with bad starts


Curran: Pats playing with fire with bad starts

FOXBORO -- In every quarter but the first, the Patriots have scored more than 140 points this season. It's uncanny. In the second, 148. In the third, 141. In the fourth, 142.

In the first quarter? Just 82. It's the only quarter in which they've been outscored (87-82).

Why, why, why, why, why?

The only coach in NFL history to coach his team to 13 or more wins in five seasons has no idea what the common thread might be.

"If we knew, we would have done something about it today," said Bill Belichick. "I guess not. We weren't trying to start that way."

In five of the Patriots' final six games, they fell behind. They were down 10-0 to the Eagles, 20-17 against Washington, 16-7 against Denver, 17-0 against Miami and 21-0 Sunday against the Bills. In the one game they didn't fall behind, they gave up 21 fourth-quarter points against the Colts.

Going back further? Against the Chiefs and Tyler Palko, the game was 3-0 deep into the first half. The Jets got up on New England, 9-6. The Giants were ahead 10-0 in the third after a scoreless first half; the Pats eventually took the lead in the final two minutes but lost in the closing seconds. The Patriots didn't erase deficits of 10-0 and 17-7 in their 25-17 loss to the Steelers. The Cowboys led the Patriots 16-13 in the fourth, but New England rallied for the win.

You have to go all the way back to Weeks 4 and 5, when the Patriots never trailed against the Raiders and Jets, to find consecutive games in which New England never trailed.

Maybe this all speaks to this team's resilience and unflappability that they can continually erase deficits. Maybe they can live like this despite all the proclamations that "This won't cut it in the playoffs." Maybe this is their identity.

"Its really lack of execution more so than anything," Tom Brady explained. "Theyre not doing anything special or Wow, we werent prepared for that. Its just theyre executing and were not. Id love to be able to see what it looks like when we put together 60 great minutes of football. Today was 45 but it was better than 30 last week, so maybe were trending toward that."

Maybe they are. The reality is, the Patriots' defense is extremely vulnerable. That's not a changeable situation. They are what they are and they are going to allow points and yards.

It's the offense that carries this franchise as it turns toward the playoffs and conventional wisdom says that it's going to be imperative for them to go score-for-score with the top-tier teams it will see in the playoffs.

The reason? Talent.

The top three teams in the AFC in points per game allowed are the Steelers, Ravens and Texans (14.2, 16.6 and 17.4). They are the fifth, second and third seeds respectively behind the Patriots in the AFC playoffs.

The Ravens, Bengals, Texans and Broncos are the top four teams in sacks. Again, all playoff teams. If the Patriots' defense allows points and New England falls behind, here comes the pass rush and the jamming at the line for the Patriots receivers as the timing of the Patriots' offense gets upset.

That's the concern going forward. Flat defensive starts in 2009 against the Ravens and 2010 against the Jets are what helped waylay the New England offense.

"Its the playoffs now," said Rob Gronkowski. "We got the best teams coming in the house, so we got to start in the first quarter, we got to start fast, we got to start strong and we cant be getting down like that. We were lucky enough to even come back against Buffalo losing by that much 21. We got to start fast for sure and we got to play all four quarters.

The early execution offensively has been puzzling. Against the Bills, it was a pair of quick possessions that gave Buffalo a chance to pillage the Patriots secondary.

Bad football by us," said Brian Waters. "Its the players. Were going to look at the film and figure out its one guy here, one guy there, one guy here, guys just not doing their jobs and not doing it well enough. The Bills are one of those teams that really are trying. I mean look at their team. They were going for it on fourth down, fake punts. They were really trying to win the game. We allowed them, by not staying focused and paying attention to details, to get off to a great start against us.

In the first quarter this season, Tom Brady went 63-for-102. That puts him 15th in the NFL in completion percentage in the opening quarter. Entering Sunday, he was 12th in first-half completion percentage. He's second in second-half completion percentage and fourth in fourth-quarter completion percentage.

Having turned deficits into leads has imbued this team with the confidence they can turn it on, that they'll figure it out.

We started off slow and lackadaisical with a lack of detail, but once we get the detail down and our playmakers start making plays, we can get it going," Aaron Hernandez said Sunday. "We just start slow. It has been like that all season but it has to change now coming into the playoffs. If we change the pace up and start going faster it will be hard to stop since we have so many weapons.

The strength of the weapons, though, is the diversity of the attack. Slot receiver. Classic tight end. Hybrid tight end. Scatback. Slashing running back. Possession receiver. The effort will be on to take away the tight ends and Welker in the playoffs. If the Patriots fall behind, the running game may become an afterthought.

It all gets harder, then. Never has a 13-3 record and the No. 1 seed been earned by a team so fundamentally flawed on defense. The Patriots allowed an average of 411.1 yards per game. They gave up 293.3 passing yards per game. They were last in the league in yards per game allowed by 42 yards. Yardage-wise, they are the worst pass defense in NFL history, allowing a record 4,727 yards passing. The previous record was 4,541 set by the 1995 Falcons.

That Brady threw for 5,325 yards helped offset the damage opposing offenses did but the defenses will be tougher in the playoffs.

Falling behind in the postseason could be flirting with disaster even if that is this team's M.O.

Belichick on Long's sack: One of the best defensive plays of the year

Belichick on Long's sack: One of the best defensive plays of the year

It came against a rookie quarterback. It came against an offense that averages a league-worst 15.0 points per game. It came against an offense that has fewer yards than any other. 

Still there are signs that Bill Belichick is pretty pleased with where his defense is after beating the Rams 26-10 on Sunday. One came on Wednesday when published its "Belichick Breakdown" for a closer look at a handful of plays from the team's most recent win.

Belichick called his team's third-and-eight stop with about 10 minutes left in the fourth quarter "probably one of the best good, team defensive plays we've had all year."

The Patriots show a five-man front, but linebacker Kyle Van Noy feigns a rush only to drop into coverage.

"Van Noy in here does a good job on the rush," Belichick said, "and also on the coverage on the back. Just good team defense. Good pass coverage down the field. The quarterback really doesn't end up having a lot of time, but there's no one to throw it to right away."

Belichick noted that all four rushers -- Chris Long, Trey Flowers, Dont'a Hightower and Rob Ninkovich -- all are able to pressure Jared Goff on the play. Combined with strong coverage in the secondary, the Rams nver really had a chance.

Belichick said it looked like a "tidal wave" of defenders bearing down on the quarterback.

"Long wins here . . . on the inside spin," Belichick said, "and Trey Flowers and Hightower both win on the little twist game inside. Then that's Rob with good speed-to-power on [Rams tackle Rob] Havenstein on the outside. Four good rushers. Plus a fifth guy...Van Noy getting that two-for-one on the guard and the back.

"Good team defense. That's great to see. A lot of hard work an execution on the practice field to make that happen."

Harbaugh on Belichick: 'I feel like we have a good relationship'

Harbaugh on Belichick: 'I feel like we have a good relationship'

FOXBORO -- They sounded like a couple of old pals. 

First it was Patriots coach Bill Belichick, who spoke of Ravens coach John Harbaugh during a conference call like one of his favorite fellow lacrosse dads.

"John and I saw a game a couple of years ago, a [Johns] Hopkins vs. Maryland game," Belichick said, adding that Harbaugh's love for the sport is just starting to blossom. "Yeah, I think John is seeing the light."

Belichick added that the two might be closer if they weren't competing so often, both in-season on the field and for free agents in the offseason. 

"As you know, we get into a situation like we’re in now where they have a good team, we have a good team, we’re playing a big game on Monday night," Belichick said. "Both teams are going to do everything they can to compete as hard as they can on Monday night. That’s what it is and that’s what we all signed up for. We all know that’s a part of it.

"When we’re not going head-to-head, which isn’t very often because we compete against each other in the offseason, we compete against each other to build our team and so forth, it just puts things in a little bit of a different situation."

During his press conference with reporters on Wednesday, Harbaugh echoed Belichick's sentiments. Belichick was famously one of Harbaugh's biggest supporters earlier in his career, calling the Ravens on Harbaugh's behalf when the franchise was looking for a new head coach. And if only they weren't so frequently competing against each other, they might be even closer, Harbaugh indicated. 

"I feel like we have a good relationship," Harbaugh said. "Like you said, we're probably not socializing that much, but I don't know how many coaches really do. We're all so busy. I'll see him or any coach at the Combine or at the owner's meetings, and we have a chance to talk. It's always good. I have a ton of respect for him. I really like him as a person. I think he's a great coach -- greatest coach of this generation. He's earned that title.

"And I study him. I've always studied him. I've always studied coach Belichick from when I first met him when I was an assistant at the University of Cincinnati, and he came in and just was great to be around.  [We have a] similar background with the special teams and that sort of thing. All of that kind of goes out the window when you compete against one another. It's like anything else, you want to win. I'm sure he feels the same way."

The recent history between their respective franchises is rife with emotion: There was Baltimore's irate reaction to Belichick's unusual formations in the AFC Divisional Round two seasons ago; there was the Ravens' supposed involvement in sparking Deflategate; and there was Harbaugh's subsequent denial. But Belichick and Harbaugh made it sound on Wednesday as if all's good between them.