Pats defense fails at the end in 24-20 loss to Giants

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Pats defense fails at the end in 24-20 loss to Giants

FOXBORO -- The parallel is impossible to ignore, and you can be sure few will be ignoring it.

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Patriots move ahead in the final minutes. Patriots merely need to stop the Giants from driving the length of the field to win the game. Patriots instead can't make third-down stops when they need to, commit critical mistakes at crucial times, and allow a touchdown with only seconds remaining, giving Tom Brady and the offense -- which had just authored a late fourth-quarter drive that had seemingly won the game -- no time to pull off a miracle finish.

But this isn't Glendale, Arizona, in February 2008. This is Foxboro, Massachusetts, in November 2011. The Patriots' 24-20 loss to the Giants on Sunday at Gillette Stadium may not echo down the corridors of time, as their 2008 defeat will, but it starkly demonstrates the dilemma facing coach Bill Belichick and his staff as the season heads into the second half.

For -- just as they did in February 2008 (told you it was impossible to ignore) -- the Pats blew not one, but two fourth-quarter leads on Sunday. Even though the Giants were playing without their top running back in Ahmad Bradshaw, and one of their top wide receivers in Hakeem Nicks, the Pats still allowed them to put together back-to-back scoring drives of 85 and 80 yards in the final nine minutes, erasing deficits of 13-10 and 20-17.

The problem is clear: When it counted the most, they were the same big-play-surrendering, key-penalty-committing, can't-get-off-the-field-on-third-down crew that's had Patriots Nation in a panic since last Sunday's gashing at the hands of the Steelers.

The standard New England explanation -- "They made more plays than we did" -- is true enough, but it also glosses over critical errors by the defense, the types of errors they've been making all season:

Kyle Arrington -- who, to be fair, had made some crucial plays earlier, including an end-zone interception that prevented New York from building a 17-3 lead -- committed a pass-interference penalty against Mario Manningham during the first of the fourth-quarter drives that enabled the Giants to move from their 25 to the Pats' 40. Then, on a third-and-five from the 10, Manningham burned Arrington for the touchdown that put New York in front, 17-13.

After Brady had driven the Pats 64 yards for the go-ahead score with 1:46 left, Giants tight end Jake Ballard got behind linebacker Tracy White -- playing because Gary Guyton and Brandon Spikes left the game with injuries -- and caught a 28-yard pass on third-and-10 that put New York on the New England 39.

Two plays later, Sergio Brown committed his own pass-interference penalty -- this one against Victor Cruz at the goal line -- that put the Giants on the Patriots 1. Brown said he was surprised by the flag ("I was playing the ball . . . I didn't think they were going to call it"), but he appeared to run into Cruz as the pass was arriving.

Then, on third-and-goal, Eli Manning threaded the needle to Ballard in the end zone for the game-winning touchdown with 19 seconds left.

"At the end of the day, we take it on our shoulders," said linebacker Jerod Mayo. "We have to close the game, and we didn't execute when we needed to."

"It's frustrating," said linebacker Rob Ninkovich, "to let things slip away after a strong first half."

And it was a strong first half for the defense; in fact, it was a strong three-plus quarters. They held the Giants scoreless in the first half, and only allowed one touchdown in the first 45 minutes even though New York got into the red zone three times. When New England went ahead, 13-10, on a 45-yard field goal by Stephen Gostkowski with 7:13 to play, there was even a feeling the Pats would be able to protect that lead. After all, they'd held the Giants to 229 yards total offense through the first three quarters, limited Manning to 12 completions in 26 attempts for only 157 yards and had even made a big play: The Arrington end-zone interception with 2:15 left in the third quarter after the Giants, leading 10-3, had moved to the New England 5.

But when the game was on the line, the defense folded . . . as it has all too often this season, and in recent seasons past (or have you forgotten the 2006 AFC championship game, in addition to the Super Bowl against the Giants)?

Coach Bill Belichick cryptically complained about the two interference calls -- "The last two calls were tough . . . That's a lot of yards on those two plays." -- but neither seemed to be a particularly egregious mistake by the officiating crew. Nor can they totally be blamed for the 165 yards the defense surrendered while trying to hold a fourth-quarter lead.

The breakdowns denied Brady his 33rd career fourth-quarter comeback victory. He and the offense were held in check throughout the first half, but they found their rhythm in the final quarter-plus.

Trailing 10-3, Brady completed passes of 27 and 28 yards to Wes Welker, then hit Aaron Hernandez with an 11-yard toss that moved the ball to the Giants 5. On the next play, he found Hernandez for the early fourth-quarter touchdown that tied the game at 10-10.

Later in the quarter, New England took its first lead in three weeks as Brady moved the Pats from their 21 to the Giants 26, setting up the Gostkowski field goal.

And then, after the Giants re-took the lead, Brady drove the Pats 64 yards with just under three minutes to play, hitting tight end Rob Gronkowski with a 14-yard touchdown pass on a fourth-and-nine play with 1:36 left that put New England in front, 20-17.

But it was Manning, not Brady, who'd be credited with the fourth-quarter comeback on this day . . . which led to a little bragging by Giants running back Brandon Jacobs.

"To me, Manning's better than 12 Brady," said Jacobs. "12 couldn't get it done today. 10 got it done."

Except, unlike 10, 12 didn't get to play against the Patriots defense.

Film review: Burkhead provides Patriots combination of power, quickness

Film review: Burkhead provides Patriots combination of power, quickness

Rex Burkhead knew he was staring at a rare opportunity.

Going into Cincinnati's 2016 season finale, the 5-foot-10, 210-pound back was averaging just three carries per game. But with both Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard injured, the fourth-year player out of Nebraska understood he had a chance to put something on tape that would help him land a job in the offseason. 

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"Can't lie," Burkhead told his college teammate Adam Carriker. "Going into free agency, I knew that game was huge. It was a good opportunity for me to show what I could do. I guess it kind of helped me out."

It certainly didn't hurt. 

Burkhead ran 27 times for 119 yards and two scores against the Ravens, showing off an intriguing blend of toughness and elusiveness in the process. 

Burkead was already an accomplished special-teamer -- he led the Bengals in special-teams tackles last season -- but his performance against the NFL's fifth-ranked rushing defense made it clear that he could be leaned upon for more than just a few carries every week.

The Patriots must have taken notice. 

They signed Burkhead earlier this month to a one-year deal that will pay him $1.8 million in base salary and carry what some considered a relatively surprising maximum value of $3.15 million. That's more than the $1 million LeGarrette Blount was offered on his one-year deal last year, and it's enough to make Burkhead the highest-paid running back on the roster. 

What did the Patriots see from Burkhead that made him worth that kind of money? Let's take a closer look at his film -- particularly what he did in Week 17 last season -- to get a sense of what he might be able to do in New England. 

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The Patriots have long had a "big back" on their roster. Most recently, that's been Blount, who has been complemented by sub back James White and all-purpose runner Dion Lewis. 

Before Blount it was Stevan Ridley. Before Ridley, it was BenJarvus Green-Ellis. You can go all the way back to Corey Dillon and Antowain Smith. Belichick likes runners who can get what's blocked, protect the football, then create their own yards in the secondary by punishing defensive backs.

Burkhead doesn't quite tip the scales as those players listed above -- though he comes close to Green-Ellis (5-11, 215) -- yet he's currently the biggest back on the Patriots roster, and he seems to run with a bruiser's mentality. 

On his very first carry against the Ravens, when he got through the line of scrimmage and into the secondary, he saw that safety Matt Elam had him lined up. Instead of trying to spin away from Elam or hurdle him, Burkhead lowered his shoulder and became the aggressor. 

Elam, who was thought to be one of the biggest hitters to enter the league four years ago, had to give himself a moment before popping back up to his feet after the collision. 

Statement made. 

Burkhead's strength, it seems, is his strength. Just ask Eric Weddle and the rest of the Ravens how he turned this play into a nine-yard gain to help the Bengals bleed the clock late in the fourth quarter. 



Burkhead consistently fought through first contact and fell forward to pick up maximum yardage snap after snap versus Baltimore's stingy run defense. On his first touchdown of the game, he was tripped up near the line of scrimmage but showed good balance by stumbling into the end zone from five yards away. 

Perhaps one of the most impressive aspects of Burkhead's performance against the Ravens was his ability to keep the Bengals out of negative plays. On multiple occasions, he was hit at the line of scrimmage or behind it and consistently made his way back to the line or beyond it. 

Early in the fourth quarter, he was hit for what looked like it would be a three or four-yard loss yet somehow he was able to twist and dive back for no gain. Midway through the second, he was hit at the line and turned it into a four-yard pickup. 



One of the reasons Lewis has been so valuable to the Patriots when healthy the last two seasons is that when things break down up front, and when it looks like Tom Brady is about to be looking at second-and-11, he cuts and knifes forward for a yard or two or more. 

Those aren't big plays in the box score, but they're critical when it comes to extending drives. It seems like Burkhead has the ability to submit the same kinds of small-but-important gains with a hard-charging style all his own.

VISION, QUICKNESS TO FIND RUNNING ROOM
For someone who seems to enjoy imposing his will on would-be tacklers, Burkhead has a good amount of wiggle to his game. His vision and lateral quickness helped him make Ravens defenders look silly at times. 

As opposed to burrowing into a pile of bodies at the line of scrimmage early in the third quarter, his jump cut to the right helped him find space in the open field for an eye-opening eight-yard run. 



On the very next down, he was stopped a yard behind the line of scrimmage but was able to pick up three thanks to another jump cut that allowed him to stretch the run out wide.

In the fourth, Burkhead showed good patience by stalling behind the block of receiver Brandon LaFell, picking a path, and running decisively once he did. 



Burkhead may not be Lewis when it comes to his elusiveness, but he has the ability to mix in some off-speed stuff in between snaps spent trying to bowl over tacklers. 

Asked by Carriker if he preferred powering through defenders or bouncing around them, Burkhead said he'd actually go with the latter. 

"I think making a guy miss just because I feel like they don't expect that from me a lot of times," Burkhead explained. "But growing up I always took good pride in that. Just my quickness, my ability to make my guy miss."

MR. VERSATILITY
Part of what makes Burkhead's signing so interesting is that he doesn't fit tightly into the definition of either "big back" or "sub back." He seems somewhat like a larger version of Lewis -- an all-purpose runner who he can be used in a variety of packages and deployed in a variety of positions.

Burkhead has run out of the I-formation and the shotgun. He's caught the ball out of the backfield and lined up as a receiver, where he spent most of Cinci's 2014 Divisional Round game against the Colts. He caught three passes that day for 34 yards and ran a reverse for a gain of 23. 

"He has tremendous short-area quickness," then-Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson said during training camp two years ago. "His 10-yard times were off the charts; his three-cone was off the charts. He's very talented [as a receiver]."

However Burkhead is used, he'll very likely continue to see time as a contributor in the kicking game. Not only does he have a wealth of experience when it comes to covering kicks, but he's served as a kick-returner in the past as well. 

So to recap: Running back...receiver...special-teamer.

Sure sounds like someone Belichick would be willing to invest in.

Ohio State LB on Belichick: 'When you first meet him, you're scared'

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Ohio State LB on Belichick: 'When you first meet him, you're scared'

Even for some of the nation's top athletes, confident 20-somethings with the rest of their (perhaps very lucrative) lives ahead of them, there's a feeling you just can't shake when Bill Belichick walks into the room. 

"When you first meet him, you're scared," said Ohio State linebacker Raekwon McMillan, per WBZ. "He's quizzing you. It's like a little test. But after you get done with the test, the quiz or whatever, drawing up the defense, it's pretty cool. They're real down to earth people. Really cool."

Belichick was spotted at Ohio State's pro day getting a closer look at McMillan and his teammates on Thursday. He then headed off to Ann Arbor, Michigan for the Wolverines showcase Friday.

During various scouting trips across the country, the Patriots appear to be showing significant interest in the incoming class of linebackers. Belichick spent some extra time with Vanderbilt's Zach Cunningham -- who's projected to be a first-rounder -- at his pro day. The team reportedly scheduled a meeting with a speedy linebacker from Cincinnati. And Matt Patricia caught up with Notre Dame linebacker James Onwualu once his workouts finished up on Thursday. 

As for McMillan, the 6-2, 240-pounder was a second-team All-American and a first-team All-Big Ten choice. He's instinctive, but there's some question as to whether or not he has the strength to hold up inside at the next level.