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Patriots Unfiltered Wed Sep 23 | 11:55 AM - 02:00 PM

Nitpicks and Nitwits: Committing sins, but finding a way to win

As long as you win, the sins of the beloved are often overlooked.

It doesn't make the sins any less egregious, only in that victory has a tendency to lessen their impact, right?  You won a game, so how bad could those sins really be?

There are a couple of ways to look at it, following the Patriots' 27-16 win at Pittsburgh Sunday.  One, of course, is dressed in simplistic optimism.  

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Ol' ugly is better than ol' nuthin'. - Darrell K. Royal, former coach, University of Texas

The other side of the coin, however, tends to dwell in dark places and constantly looks for perfection - which simply doesn't exist.

Have no fear of perfection. You'll never reach it. - Salvador Dali, Artist

As part of New England fandom, my thoughts are we tend to side with Dali's thinking, largely due to the renowned success of the franchise over the past 15 years.  The team is already good, but what will make them great?  We're spoiled by past success.  We're always pushing, seeking, discovering - and hoping the team will do the same as they strive to win every game they play.  

Is that being pessimistic?  Not necessarily.  As any good competitor should know, you play to win the game - just like former Jets' coach Herm Edwards once espoused to the media, prior to his departure from New York.  It stands to reason that the fewer mistakes you make, the better your chances of having ultimate success.

But in the high-pressure world of the NFL, everyone makes mistakes.  Some are costlier than others, but in a game that often has an unrealistic outlook of expectation - where everyone has talented players capable of winning - sins that are committed on the field are often forgiven or ignored, as long as the team wins.  

They're still mistakes.  And as long as they happen, those who coach and play the game will always be striving to learn from them, with the hope of improving their performance.  The Patriots' play in Pittsburgh wasn't perfect, but it was good enough to return home with a mark in the left-hand column.  Maybe the Pats had better players, and perhaps the Steelers were missing a couple of important pieces to their seasonal puzzle.

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It didn't matter.  Whatever your takeaway from Sunday's play, New England ultimately made more plays than Pittsburgh, even if there were mistakes along the way.     

The price of success is hard work, dedication to the job at hand, and the determination that whether we win or lose, we have applied the best of ourselves to the task at hand. - Vince Lombardi

As a Patriots' fan, you can sit back and enjoy a road win over the Steelers and a 6-1 start to the season - which as of this moment, has the team in control of its' own destiny.  And, know that the coaches and players will be working this week not just on preparations for the Buffalo Bills (next Sunday's opponent), but also on their never-ending search for overall perfection in performance.

They may never find it, but that won't keep them from trying.  

Do Your Job. - Bill Belichick

If the Patriots can simply do their jobs - which boils down to simply winning games - whatever sins they might commit along the way won't just be overlooked.  

They'll also be forgiven.

But in case you were wondering...

The quote above from the late Texas coach Darrell Royal is certainly appropriate.  Several aspects of the win in Pittsburgh were ugly, but the result was better than the alternative.

We'll start with the obvious - turnovers.  Usually game-killers on the road, New England's two fumbles (Chris Hogan, Julian Edelman) never came back to haunt them. Hogan's fumble on the Patriots' first offensive play of the game was carelessness with the ball, but Malcolm Butler's interception of Landry Jones on the Steelers' subsequent drive cancelled it out.

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When Edelman fumbled on a punt return in the 4th quarter, the Patriots already had a 27-16 lead.  Again, they were helped by a Steeler miscue on the ensuing drive (a missed 54-yard field goal), but the chance to put the game away at that point was lost.

Pittsburgh forced two fumbles, but couldn't take advantage and scored no points after those turnovers.  That may have been the game's single-biggest mistake of them all.

In defense of the defense

Does a defense like to be thought of as one that "bends, but doesn't break?"

Certainly, the bottom line always remains a constant - did you win the game?  But the way you won the game can also serve as a warning shot for future consideration. Through the first six weeks of the season, the Patriots were ranked near the bottom in two key defensive areas - 3rd down conversions and Red Zone defense.

While those numbers improved considerably against the Steelers (limiting Pittsburgh to 5-of-16 on 3rd down, and only 1-of-4 scoring TD's in the RZ), Pittsburgh was without starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and running back DeAngelo Williams.  Receiver Martavis Bryant hasn't seen the field this season, either.  But what the Steelers did have was a physical offensive line that controlled much of the play in the trenches, and muted the Patriots' pass rush.  

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Part of the pass rush problem more than likely game from the game plan - dropping defenders into coverage in order to cause Landry Jones some difficulty.  But in the second quarter alone, Pittsburgh pounded the middle of the Pats' defense for 168 yards of total offense, and scored 10 of their 16 total points in the period.  Kicker Chris Boswell also missed a 42-yard attempt, and it came after a touchdown pass to Darrius Heyward-Bey had already been nullified.

The Patriots were also the last team in the NFL to give up an offensive play of 40 or more yards, allowing Jones to find Antonio Brown behind the secondary for a 51-yard play in the 2nd period that led to a touchdown. 

Certainly, the Patriots are showing versatility in the way they can overcome obstacles and beat an opponent.  But New England's defense is a little scarecrow-like right now, soft and pliant - and they're playing with fire.

Not-so-special teams

Stephen Gostkowski's missed PAT aside - and it was his second in two weeks - the rest of the special teams' play left much to be desired.  

Julian Edelman fumbled a punt return.  Ryan Allen shanked a punt for 25 yards, even though it led to a missed field goal.  Kickoff returns allowed the Steelers an average of 27 yards per return, after ranking 2nd in the NFL in defensive starting position through the first five weeks.

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Nothing egregious, really.  But attention to detail on special teams is something the Patriots usually deal with every week.  It's a sure-fire bet to be dealt with again this week, getting ready for Buffalo.

Bills, Jets both grounded

Without looking ahead too much, it was hard NOT to notice this week's game at Buffalo was likely to mean as much as any game played to this point in the NFL season.

Until the Bills lost to the Miami Dolphins, that is.  

With a win over Miami, the Bills would have been in position to grab the lead in the AFC East with a win this week over the Patriots, holding a tie-breaker thanks to two regular-season victories.  The Bills could still get that second win, but it won't put them in the division lead just yet.  And the status of running back LeSean McCoy is up in the air, after rushing for only 11 yards on eight carries against the Dolphins on a sore hamstring.

And those Jets, they found a way to win at home against Baltimore.  But internally, they may have problems.  QB Ryan Fitzpatrick entered the game against the Ravens in the 2nd quarter, on in relief of Geno Smith, and pitched the Jets to a 24-16 win.  Afterward, he lamented the lack of confidence the staff has in his play - which has been below most expectations thus far this season (an NFL-leading 11 INT's this season) - and his benching by the team.

Smith is another matter, entirely.  For a guy who arrived in New York with so much promise from a near-Heisman college campaign, through mediocre-to-poor play on the field and even taking a shot on the kisser from a teammate to break his jaw...Sunday's 2nd quarter departure with a knee injury wasn't exactly a step in the right direction.

The injury wasn't deemed serious, even though Smith never returned to the game.  Legendary Jets QB "Broadway" Joe Namath took to social media, questioning his, um, intestinal fortitude.

With two untested-but-talented young QB's still on the bench (yes, they have four quarterbacks), who will start next week is up in the air as the Jets try to correct a flight pattern that appears headed in a southerly direction this season.  

*John Rooke is an author and award-winning broadcaster, and is beginning his 24th season as the Patriots' stadium voice.  Currently serving in several media capacities - which include hosting "Patriots Playbook" on Patriots.com Radio - Rooke has broadcast college football and basketball locally and nationally for 28 seasons and is a member of the Rhode Island Radio Hall of Fame. *

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