New England's offense has had problems scoring in the second half of games. It hasn't had a consistently productive third wide receiver in a scheme that relies heavily on three-wide sets. And the play calling has come under increasing fire of late.
Defensively, the Patriots haven't had much in the way of a pass rush all season. They lack a legitimate playmaker – a Ty Law, Rodney Harrison, Asante Samuel type – in the secondary. And they've failed to hold on to leads against good teams on the road.
Facing these realities, several players used the phrase "back to the drawing board" to describe what was needed in the wake of New England's 38-17 loss to New Orleans on Monday. But with only a month to go in the regular season, is now the time to engage in soul-searching?
Quarterback Tom Bradytried to focus on the positives in response to that very question.
"You know, we're 7-4 … the season's not lost by any stretch," he insisted. "Yesterday was a day of reflection for everybody to get their mind back in the right perspective. When you don't play good football, you lose games. That's not a new revelation for any of us.
"The season isn't decided. We're still trying to make improvements and there are a lot of things that are going to happen over the course of the next five weeks. A lot of football to be played. We're in a good position in terms of our division. This win this week would do a lot for us. It's a critical game for us."
Brady, however, conceded that there are problems his team needs to address.
"Part of being mentally tough and moving forward is not to worry and understand that mistakes happen and you have to correct them. Everyone's been frustrated and disappointed the last day and a half. Part of it is understanding what we did wrong and going out there and having a good week of practice and trying to make some improvements."
From an individual standpoint, the quarterback cited his missed throws and missed opportunities, along with his need to make better decisions with the football and to communicate more effectively with his offensive teammates.
"As an offense," he added, "we're still – even though we're going into our 12th game – we're still finding our way. We're still trying to find ways to attack the defense and get our guys in the best position possible."
Such deficiencies were magnified against the Saints, who effectively limited the productivity of Brady's two main targets, Randy Moss and Wes Welker.
"Most teams focus their coverage on those guys. The Jets did, Indy does," Brady pointed out. "They're playmakers in our offense, and every team tries to take away your best playmakers. [Against New Orleans] we didn't do a very good job of getting it to them or anybody else consistently enough to score points."
The reasons for the Patriots offense's inability to score often enough in the second half are no different, according to Brady, than when they don't score at other points in games. He was more willing to accede the point that New England's has suffered from the lack of a legitimate third wide receiver. But he expressed confidence in the emergence of Sam Aiken in that role.
He was also optimistic about the resurgent running game, with Laurence Maroney'sperformance in particular, and with the returns of Sammy Morrisand potentially Fred Taylor.
"Laurence is really starting to run the ball good. Kevin [Faulk] has been running the ball well all year. Sammy is coming back off of kind of being out for a while and he's a key part of that. Hopefully we get Fred back at some point. All of those guys contribute as the weather gets colder and the wind starts blowing here and the temperature goes down and you kind of get into those grind about games, running that ball and staying balanced to set up play action and really get Randy and Wes involved, that's what we need to do."
Brady gave his offensive line a major vote of confidence when asked about their performance to date.
"Those guys work hard and they've played well all year. We don't give up many sacks. It's not like some teams who are giving up 40 sacks at this point. We've given up 13 or 14, whatever it is. They're a mentally tough group, very committed to doing their job and doing it the right way. I never have any concerns about the offensive line.
He highlighted New England's depth at the tackle position as a source of encouragement. Brady welcomed the return of left tackle Matt Lightwhile lauding the play of rookie Sebastian Vollmerin Light's absence, the versatility of backup Mark LeVoirand the steady contributions of Nick Kaczur.
"We have some good depth there at tackle. Not a lot of teams have that kind of depth. We're going to need everybody."
Even before he was fired by Notre Dame, former Patriots offensive coordinator Charlie Weishad been mentioned frequently on local talk radio and fan message boards, as many observers have been critical of New England's play calling this season. That has only intensified since Weis' ouster from South Bend, and Brady was asked for his thoughts on the sudden availability of his former coach.
"Charlie and I always keep in touch. He's always been a great friend of mine. We have a great relationship. It's very disappointing for him. His heart and soul are with Notre Dame. The players really like Charlie. We all enjoy being with Charlie. None of those decisions are up to me. He's a great guy and a great coach. Any team would be lucky to have him."
Perhaps the most disconcerting aspect of New England's 2009 season thus far has been the team's inability to win on the road. Brady acknowledged this, saying if that doesn't change, the Patriots playoff hopes will dim.
"You're right, we have to play better on the road. You're not going to do very good if you can't take care of business on the road ... If you want to beat good teams, you have to play a great game."
Moving on …
After suffering their second loss in three weeks, the Patriots face another tough road test this weekend when they travel to Miami.
That division contest against the Dolphins might be just what the doctor ordered for the Patriots, however.
"We talked about it today," said WR Wes Welker. "We've got move on and get ready for Miami. We can't have a hangover or anything like that, we have to move on and make sure that Miami's at the forefront of it … Hopefully we take care of business this week and learn from our mistakes last week."
"You know, that's behind us," added CB Leigh Bodden. "We're not really focused on New Orleans, we're focused on Miami and trying to get back on track. I really haven't dwelled on that. We're going onto Miami and trying to focus on that.
"It's a different team, a different scheme, a different everything. We're trying to focus on that, that's the way that we're going to beat Miami. We're just going to focus on what they do and the things that they do well and try to stop them."
"It's real important that we get a good week of practice," safety Brandon McGowanpointed out. "We've got to go through some key things on offense and defense that will prepare us for this upcoming Sunday."
Wednesday locker room/practice notes
Having returned from New Orleans shortly before dawn on Tuesday, the Patriots have a shorter than normal week to prepare for the Dolphins. They moved their practice to mid-afternoon Wednesday in an effort to recover physically from the Monday night game and long flight home.
Today's session was a walk-through that took place inside the Dana-Farber Field House. Everyone except RB Fred Taylorwas in attendance.