Curran: Pats playing with fire with bad starts

Curran: Pats playing with fire with bad starts
January 2, 2012, 4:19 am
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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.