Curran: Patriots getting better; Jets getting worse

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Curran: Patriots getting better; Jets getting worse

By Tom E. Curran
CSNNE.com Patriots Insider Follow @tomecurran

FOXBORO - I don't know who said it first, but it's a line they like to use around Gillette Stadium: "You're either getting better or you're getting worse."That platitude was in practice Sunday afternoon. The Patriots - with their once sadly amusing defense and forgotten running game - bowed up on the blowhard New York Jets. And the Jets? Owners of a three-game losing streak and entering back-to-back games against teams coming off of their bye weeks, they may have played better than they did last week but their identity crisis seems to be just beginning. We'll get to that in a few paragraphs. First, let's look at what the Patriots were able to accomplish in improving to 4-1 (keeping pace with the powerful Bills). As opposed to the last time these two teams met, the Patriots were able to establish balance. Thirty-three throws, 35 runs, and 7-of-14 on third down. The two key drives they reeled off were an 11-play drive that covered 77 yards and consumed 4:12. That came in the third quarter when the Patriots lead was 17-14 and they hadn't put together a sustained drive that resulted in points since early in the second quarter. The second drive began with 7:14 remaining and the lead 27-21. A 13-play, 69-yard drive (54 coming on the ground from BenJarvus Green-Ellis) that chewed up 6:12 and ended with a game-icing field goal with 1:09 remaining. After weeks of deservedly being called a finesse team, the Patriots lined up and rammed the ball down the throats of an increasingly disinterested Jets defense.

Thats always huge," said tight end Rob Gronkowski. "You dont want to give them a chance to come back. Give them any small chance, any play, they can come right back and score a touchdown no matter what the play is. So you always want to close it out and not give them a chance . . . You just want to finish it off in the game and we did with the field goal.

In the playoffs last year, the Patriots spent gobs of time trying to process what the Jets were doing before the snap. Sunday, they were decisive and destructive.

"That was a big part of the win. I thought we were balanced," explained Tom Brady."Ran the clock out at the end, that was important. We needed that win. We have to run the ball. If they have a lot of DBs out there, then we have to run it. If they put big guys in, we still have to run it. You just cant throw the ball every single down against these guys, they make it too tough."

The Patriots were the tougher team Sunday. And Brady had a lot to do with that with getting the offense into the correct running play at the line.

"They give you a lot of different looks,"said Bill Belichick."They stem in and out of things and overload and then switch it and just change things up on you, so youve got to be careful about running plays that just have no chance. You want to stay out of those and try to give yourself something that you at least have an even fight, fair numbers on. That's the quarterbacks responsibility and a couple times we just got caught in it. They did a good job. They maneuvered in a way that we werent able to do that, but I thought he did a good job handling that."

At his locker after the game, Brady lamented the plays missed, the throws not made, the points left on the board. But it was - relatively speaking - an improvement for this offense even though it mustered fewer yards than in the first three weeks of this season.

Defensively? No griping. A group that was good for a 30-plus play per quarter didn't allow a play of more than 20 yards until the fourth quarter and there were only two of those.

It helped that Mark Sanchez was less than accurate and that Jets offensive coordinator Brian Schotteheimer had a curious day of playcalling (throwing on short yardage on the first three Jets' series with no success; never challenging the Patriots' corners on the outside where they've been vulnerable). But the Patriots responded to New York's proclamation that they would ground andor pound the football at them. The Jets made yards (25 carries, 97 yards), but their ineptitude on third down kept them from getting any flow.

"We knew coming into this game they were going to try to get the ground game going," said Vince Wilfork. "At times they did, but at times we buckled down. I think you just saw two teams today that play each other all the time and its always tough. When you play a division game, its always tough. Especially with the Jets. But you just saw two good football teams go at it. We know one another. You may see a few wrinkles, but they do what they do. They play physical. They challenged us this week and I think we rose to the occasion."

This defense hadn't done that to a great extent this season. Moments? Yes. A full game of it? No. But they did it against the Jets, a team that they really, truly revile.

"They were going to make plays, we were going to make plays, but we knew we had to hang in their tough and play good solid football and then we knew wed be ok. I think we did tonight," added Wilfork. "I think third down was a plus for us tonight. The yardage, no big plays- thats part of the most impressive stat for us. Like I said, we werent perfect, but its a step in the right direction."

And as the Patriots keep getting better, establishing an identity, the Jets are reeling.

Asked in the postgame if this is the toughest situation the Jets have faced, Rex Ryan said, "Its probably right there with them. You know, we are the only NFL team in history to go to the playoffs having overcome two three-game losing streaks. Weve been down that road before, but to get back to winning, you have to roll your sleeves up and get after it. And start working and preparing and believing in each other and we can turn the tide."

It's never a good sign when you're able to dredge up stats about how good your team is when it goes in the tank. Because, at some point, the time comes when that team finds that the best way to respond to three-game losing streaks is to avoid them. The Jets aren't there yet. Their head coach may know that there is no switch to flip, but the annual preseason victory parades and proclamations are eventually going to backfire.

And that process may be in motion right now.Tom E. Curran can be reached at tcurran@comcastsportsnet.com. Follow Tom on Twitter at http:twitter.comtomecurran.

Brady, Harbaugh found common ground on plane ride back from Michigan

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Brady, Harbaugh found common ground on plane ride back from Michigan

FOXBORO -- What could have been an awkward plane ride for Tom Brady and John Harbaugh was made less so thanks to a high school lacrosse player. 

Brady and Harbaugh shared a private plane back from Michigan where Jim Harbaugh and his University of Michigan program put on an event for National Signing Day. About a year earlier, Brady told a room full of reporters that Harbaugh and his coaching staff should study the rule book and "figure it out" after hearing that they were pretty upset about the unusual formations the Patriots ran during their AFC Divisional Round win over Baltimore. 

They may not have been on the best of terms.

"I was pissed off," he told ESPN's Ian O'Connor before the start of this season. "It was uncalled for. And the rules are deeper than that, and I know the rules, and I stand by why that play shouldn't have been allowed. ... So yeah, that should never have been said."

But on the flight was Harbaugh's daughter Alison, a high school lacrosse player. When Brady took some time to share a few thoughts on competitiveness with her, he and Harbaugh found common ground.

"We had a lot of fun," Harbaugh said of the flight. "I don't know if he's talked about that at all, but we ended up sharing a plane ride along with my daughter and a couple of his people, friends of his. We just had a chance to just talk for a couple hours. And really more than anything, Alison got a chance to listen to Tom Brady talk about competing and what it takes to be great at what you do.

"And one of the funny things about it was, he was so nice to her. He gets off and they go, and we get back on the plane and we're talking, and she says something like, 'Boy, Tom really is a nice guy.' And I look at here and go, 'Tom?' I'm thinking 'Mr. Brady' would have been more appropriate. She said, 'He said to call me Tom.' I got a kick out of that.

"It was good. Lot of respect for him and a lot of respect for what he's accomplished. He's very tough to compete against. The best quarterback that's played, certainly in this era, without question in my mind. That's how I would rank him. And it's just another tough challenge to have to play against him."

Friday Bag: What’s the Patriots' future at running back look like?

Friday Bag: What’s the Patriots' future at running back look like?

Every Friday Tom E. Curran, Mike Giardi and Phil Perry will take your Patriots questions (Curran is sitting this one out) on Twitter and answer them as a joint mailbag -- or a Friday Bag, as they call it. 

Got questions? Tweet the guys using the hashtag #FridayBag.

MG: Q leading off my portion of the always popular, always exciting, always (occasionally?) informative #FridayBag. I think it would be easy to think that way from the outside looking in, or knowing how callous some organizations can be, but I just don’t believe that to be the case here. Players talk. Agents talk. Hell, coaches talk. If the Pats were to operate that way, it would get around the league in a heartbeat. Then why would someone want to play here knowing they’ll be treated even more like a disposable commodity then normal? The flip side to this is actually protecting the player from himself. Guys in the last year of a deal sometimes feel compelled to play through every damn thing so they can at least say “look at me, I’m a warrior!” And on that note, I’d sit Marty Bennett next week in Denver and probably the following week against the Jets if that will help the ankle and whatever else is ailing him heal to the point where he’s a hell of a lot more effective than what we just saw versus the Rams (He was awful). Bennett’s too valuable going forward. 

MG: Lisa, my understanding is teams nominate their player and then it goes to a panel (one that includes the NFL Commish) to decide who wins for the league (It was Anquan Boldin in 2015). Can’t quibble with Rob Gronkowski being the team’s nominee this year. People have no idea how much he does for the community. Heck, we don’t even know the extent of it, but the great Don Rodman of Rodman Car Dealer fame and one of the most incredibly charitable individuals to ever grace this area said that there are few if any athletes who devote more time and effort to charitable works/foundations. I hope he wins. It would mean a lot to Gronk.

MG: You never figured you’d have to worry about the offense, did you Steve? But the season-ending injury to Gronk and now the injury to Danny Amendola does concern me. Both of those guys are incredibly reliable 3rd down targets, and in Gronk’s case, he’s usually the first or second option on 3rd down. Bennett hasn’t been able to pick up the slack because he’s clearly not healthy either. That means the Pats and Josh McDaniels will be going through a trial and error period here to best determine how to improve that number and become more efficient. I suspect more will fall on Julian Edelman, but also look for the continued evolution of the two back set with James White and Dion Lewis.

MG: Ambrose, the Pats have remained incredibly committed to the run because they don’t want to find themselves in the same spot they were a year ago, when the run game was so pathetic that neither Miami in the regular season finale nor Denver in the AFC title game paid it one mind. That means rushers pinning their ears back and smashing into Tom Brady at rates no one is comfortable with. So while I won’t be surprise if Brady throws it 45 times, I don’t think they shelve the ground game, at least in the first half. 

MG: Ok Bunk, I stole a comment of yours for the mailbag. Trying to make you famous…yes, I stand by my tweet in which I stated the Ravens and Broncos are bigger threats than the Chiefs or Raiders. Oakland’s defense would give up 40 to Brady. 45 if the Pats needed it. Or 50. I’m dead serious. As for the Chiefs, Alex Smith is not coming into Foxboro and beating this team, even with some of it’s defensive issues. And Belichick will make damn sure that rookie Hill doesn’t get many cracks at touching the football in the return game. Oh, and now the Chiefs best linebacker, Johnson, is out for the year with an Achilles. Should I continue???

MG: History tells us no, David. Brady would throw a fit and argue that he needs to play to remain sharp or iron out this problem or that problem. There’s also the possibility of a bye week looming, meaning he’d go 3 weeks without actually playing in a game. Seems like a good idea in the sense that you don’t risk a 39-year old to a blindside shot, but neither he nor Belichick would ever go for it.

PP: The running back position might be the toughest to project moving forward because there are so many injuries there and there are so many backs who come from nowhere to earn significant roles. I'll say this though: The backs they have on the roster -- not including Brandon Bolden, who has turned into strictly a special teamer after having a difficult time holding onto the football this year -- don't seem to be slowing down. LeGarrette Blount just turned 30 but is in the middle of his best season. Dion Lewis looks strong after two surgeries. James White has taken his game to a new level in his third season. I could see the same group coming back next season, but given the volatility of the position, you know the Patriots will always be scouring for talent there. 

PP: Tom E. touched on this yesterday, Big Wally. Brandon Pettigrew, who was released by the Lions on Friday, might make sense. Otherwise, there's not a whole lot out there. Zach Sudfeld? He's available. Would be an unlikely reunion, but desperate times . . . I think the Patriots will continue to roll out Martellus Bennett at less than 100 percent. I think Matt Lengel could see more work as a blocking tight end as he becomes more familiar with the system. I think we'll see more Cameron Fleming, and we could see more two-back sets with no tight ends. In my opinion, Bennett could use a rest, but I don't think it's coming any time soon. As far as Sarge's question about the hurry-up, I'm not sure we'll start to see more that. It's possible, but one of the benefits with the hurry-up is to keep a defense from substituting to shift matchups in its favor. With Gronkowski or Bennett on the field in a hurry-up situation would have even further highlighted the matchup issues they present. If either one found himself with a slow linebacker on him, the Patriots could have rushed to the line and continued...to exploit...that matchup. Without Gronkowski and without Bennett at full strength, the advantage of the no-huddle is somewhat sapped.  

PP: It's so late into the season, I'm not sure there's much in the way of opportunity for a breakout game this week, Paul. I guess the obvious choice would be Griff Whalen. If he can give the Patriots a pair of sure hands as a punt-returner, that would be a significant enough add that I might qualify it as a "breakout." Bill Belichick made it clear this morning that the team views him as more than just a returner, though, so he could see some offensive snaps in four-receiver sets and provide the Patriots with a presence in the slot. I'd deem a four-catch, 50-yard performance as a "breakout" as well. To me, that's the range of his ceiling for this week. One other name as a potential "breakout" candidate? Justin Coleman. He could be used defensively after being inactive for the last three weeks due to Eric Rowe's hamstring injury. If he's able to help slow down the combination of Mike Wallace, Breshad Perriman and Steve Smith, that'd be a breakout in my book. 

PP: The combined record of opponents they've beaten is actually 26-57-1, including the Browns 0-12 mark twice, but now it's out there. 'Preciate you, Dave!

PP:  There's still so much up for grabs in the AFC West that it's hard to determine the likelihood of Patriots playoff matchups and where those games will be. However, without getting into the nitty gritty details, I'll just point out that it's still possible that the Patriots end up on the road in either of these cities in the postseason. On the road, Denver is the tougher matchup. Always has been a brutal place for the Patriots to play, and Denver's defense is still good enough to cause them problems. At home? I'd say, of these two teams, Kansas City would be the one that would provide the Patriots with a slightly tougher test. In my mind, they're a little more balanced and I have more faith in Alex Smith to make plays than I do Trevor Siemien.