Football is on my mind today as the NFL grinds toward the end of the regular season.
In New England the NFL means the Patriots. They are in trouble. They have lost their last two games in most un-Patriotic fashion, giving up a 69-yard touchdown on the last play of a 34-33 outcome at Miami last week and committing 14 penalties in a 17-10 setback at Pittsburgh on Sunday. They are 9-5, the first time since 2009 they have lost as many as five games in a season. The last time they lost consecutive games in December was 2002.
What’s worse, the Patriots have lost their swagger. They still rank among the NFL’s best teams –first in the AFC East, third in the current playoff seeding – but they no longer seem invincible. Opponents are making the big plays the Patriots used to make, Miami’s hook-and-ladder, double-lateral, razzle-dazzle game winner Exhibit A.
The Patriots are making mistakes their opponents used to make, the 14 penalties, including five false starts, Exhibit B. FIVE FALSE STARTS IN THE 14THGAME OF THE SEASON? ARE YOU KIDDING? On their last possession they got to the Pittsburgh 11 and drew flags for a false start and a hold. On their penultimate possession they drove to the Pittsburgh 5 and held. Penalties cost the Pats 106 yards.
Against the Dolphins Tom Brady lost track of his timeouts at the end of the first half. Thinking he had one, he took a sack. He had none, costing the Pats at least three points.
And what about the Patriots essentially running out the clock at the end of the first half against the Steelers, when they were trailing, 14-7? The offense lined up on fourth and one at the New England 40 with 21 seconds left as if they were going for the first down and then jogged off as the punt team sprinted on. In the old days Brady would have worked the sidelines and the middle to get the ball in field-goal range, if not the end zone.
The Patriots are talking like a team searching for answers. Tough sledding on the road. Still something to play for. Missed opportunities. Not playing well enough to win. These words are tumbling from the lips of the Patriots, not the Jets.
But all is not lost. The 5-9 Bills are coming to town this week, and the 4-10 Jets are due Dec. 30. The Pats need one victory to clinch their 10th consecutive AFC East title. They need help to bump 10-4 Houston from the second spot in the AFC playoffs. If the Pats win two, and Houston loses at Philadelphia or at home against Jacksonville, the Pats will reclaim the second spot and the all-important bye. But if Houston wins two, the Pats, assuming they win at least one, will host a wildcard-round game and, if they win, travel to Houston for the second round. Kansas City would be the likely stop for the AFC Championship. The way the Patriots are playing now, that trip is hardly guaranteed.