Patriots Need Help at the Back of Their Bullpen

Perhaps the New England Patriots should jump into the Mariano Rivera sweepstakes. Or failing that, maybe they should put in a bid on Rafael Soriano. Because one thing is clear, the bullpen by committee stuff isn’t working and this team needs a closer!

It’s no easy task to put away the Colts. The Patriots have learned that the hard way twice since 2006. But yesterday was simply ridiculous. Up  31-14 with ten minutes to go and the Pats basically let the Colts chop into a big league and put the winning run on third with nobody out in the ninth. Only a terrific defensive play allowed the Pats to cheat death and that is because the Pats are simply allergic to closing games out with authority.

The same crap happened a month ago in San Diego where the Pats were up 23-6 with eleven minutes to go and then had to buck up in the final minute to stave off a loss. And last week, despite playing terrific football for 51 minutes, the Steelers shredded the Pats prevent defense and were an onside recovery away from stealing New England’s bacon, or at least making things WAY too close for comfort.

Now it is easy to blame the defense for yesterday’s near disaster as they got gouged once Manning got cranking. And following on last week’s game, where the Pats prevent defense was about as effective as a shredded condom, it is safe to say that New England’s “prevent,” at least against big throwers, is woeful. But yesterday’s blame, at least to these eyes, falls more heavily on the shoulders of the offense, which was unable to do ANYTHING to put that game away.

Handed the ball with eight minutes to play and a ten point play, three first downs would have gone a long way toward cleaning Indy out. But the Pats quickly got stuck in third and four and for some reason thought a two-yard throw to a covered Branch was going to pick up a first down. Sorry, not even close and once that failed, the flashbacks to last year became all too real.  And then, when given a second chance to lock things up, the offense sputtered again in front of the two-minute warning. This from an offense that did whatever it wanted to do in the first-half and one that stuffed an eighty yard drive down Indy’s throat in the third quarter. Sorry, but I am having a little trouble reconciling the memory of Sippy Woodhead galloping for a thirty-six yard touchdown, aided by some awesome blocking, with an offense that can’t pick up a couple of first downs against a defense that isn’t much to start with and hadn’t done a lot all afternoon.

At some point, and probably before the Jets come to Gillette in two weeks, the Pats have got to find their inner closer. Some of these problems, particularly on offense, haunted the team a year ago and unless they figure out a better way to finish these games out, this team looks more like a wildcard than a division winner. And in the NFL, that is not the desirable place to be.

Anyway, enough negative stuff for one morning. So other than Lincoln getting shot, what else happened at the theatre yesterday? Well plenty and much of it was good.

First off, the offense was absolutely aces in the first half yesterday, doing anything they wanted against a defense that was made to look a lot more like University of Indiana than the Indianapolis Colts.   Brady was sharp, the running game was productive, the pass protection was solidly in B+ territory, and receivers were finding space. And on the defensive side, the Pats pass rush was able to apply some occasional pressure, they got a big turnover to start things off and only a stupid four-point missed tackle near half allowed the Colts to get their second TD. Then, in the third quarter, the Pats mauled the Colts on one drive, the defense got a key stop and McCourty was able to haul in an interception that should have put the game away.  The final numbers once again don’t look so hot for the defense, but if the offense had done its part with the score 31-21, the defense would have emerged from that game with an improved reputation.

With the Colts now in the rearview window, the Pats have emerged from a tough two-game stretch in great shape. The playoff picture remains a little muddied but at 8-2, I can now say with confidence that I the Pats will be apart of the post-season. And I think it’s time to formally lift my pre-season “ten win” prediction as eleven looks certain and twelve looks better than 50/50. This week is probably not a gimmie but the Pats should be able to motor out of Detroit with a ten-point win and that leaves a monster against the Jets in two weeks. The Pats win that one and a number one seed in the AFC is possible. Back on Labor Day, that is not something I expected myself to say on November 22.

Extra Points:

It’s about time Devin McCourty starts getting some mention as a pro-bowl level corner. He faces an uphill battle to get that recognition this year as voters will surely look to NE’s passing numbers as damning evidence, but that largess is not DM’s fault. On the contrary, he has been almost as good as Darius Butler has been bad and that is a pretty heady compliment.

* The blocking on that Woodhead TD was simply awesome. Branch (and someone else) cleared that backside out to spring it and it was hard to miss Welker making blocks all the way down at the goal line to finish it. That was great stuff.

* I have prepared myself for it to end any minute but the Woodhead dividends are starting to add up bigtime. This might be blasphemous, but the Faulk injury has proven to be fortuitous as it gave Woody a shot to do his thing. The Jets have to be just torn up over this.

* The tackling was not quite up to last week’s standards but the Pats rushing defense was once again stout. Criticize the pass rush all you’d like but spare me the following: “they couldn’t stop Hillis so they can’t stop anyone.”

* It was a nice day for next April …. The Raiders lost, the Panthers lost and the Vikings lost. Their screw-ups are the Pats move-ups. Early bet:  the Pats pick 14th, 31st, 33rd, 63rd and 71st in next year’s draft.

* Brady has now gone five games without tossing a pick and if you back out the Hail Mary from the Baltimore game, he is still stuck on three for the season. A sixty-five percent completion percentage, coupled with less than a pick every one hundred attempts, is a pretty powerful combo.

* Tough day for ex-Pats … Richard Seymour scored a knockdown but likely will face a suspension for punching Big Ben (Very Strange play), Damian Woody looked like he suffered a serious knee injury and Randy Moss got shut out once again.  You think Moss isn’t having some regrets?

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