Do you find yourself scratching your head when pondering the Patriots' current losing skid (three defeats in their last four games)?
You're not alone. Most of the players are doing the same thing.
On both sides of the ball – and some areas of special teams, too – New England is struggling. Uncharacteristically so, under head coach Bill Belichick'swatch.
"You can't … you can't, you know," safety Brandon Meriweathermaintained when asked to identify possible reasons.
"Your guess is as good as mine," came All-Pro wide receiver Wes Welker'sresponse.
"I can't say there's really anything to explain ... It's the same players, same guys. That's what we're out there to do, is make plays. We've got to make more of them, however many it takes."
Instead, however, the Patriots have been making more than their share of mistakes recently.
Offensively, against the Dolphins this past Sunday, as in previous losses this year, the Patriots ran into trouble when it came to putting points on the board in the second half. Had it not been for wide receiver Sam Aiken'sspectacular effort on his 81-yard catch-and-run touchdown on New England's second play from scrimmage in the third quarter, the Patriots might have gone scoreless after the half.
Even with that score, though, New England once again couldn't close out an opponent over whom they held a sizeable second-half lead. Statistically, a couple of areas where the Patriots were deficient were in third-down efficiency (40 percent) and red zone efficiency (33 percent).
"I think we had a lot of three-and-outs in the second half," quarterback and co-captain Tom Bradyremarked immediately following the loss to Miami, "so, if you're not on the field long, it's hard for anybody to make plays. I think those three and outs really hurt us.
"When you're down there in the red area and you don't score touchdowns, you just give the other team too many opportunities … That probably tells the story."
Oh, but there's much more to this story.
It's not like the Patriots have been dismal all season. They've had great moments (Brady's two-TD comeback against Buffalo in the season opener) and even great games (routing Tennessee and Tampa back-to-back), but just as many embarrassing disasters.
Play calling has also come under intense scrutiny this season, especially on fourth-down opportunities on offense. New England has converted some big ones (versus Atlanta, for instance) and fallen short on other potential game-changers (at Indy and at Miami).
"I think we've played pretty inconsistent," Brady agreed. "We have some good drives and then we have some bad drives. Everyone is trying to put their finger on it and really figure it out. It's frustrating for all of us. We certainly think that when we go out there we have a lot of confidence that we're going to get the ball in the end zone. We had some chances … and we get no points. That's the frustrating part for all of us."
Inconsistency has plagued the defense as well. Linebacker Tully Banta-Cain, for instance, is poised to have his best NFL season, numbers-wise. During the Dolphins game, Banta-Cain tied his career high for sacks in a season (a team-leading 5.5), but as a unit, New England's front seven hasn't been able to pressure opposing quarterbacks with any regularity this season.
"It's not that we're not getting to [the quarterback]," he observed. "We get to him one play, but we don't the next. Sometimes, for whatever reason, we get caught out of position and the play that they run is a way to take us away from getting a pass rush."
In the secondary, the problems have been magnified of late. Heading into the bye week, it looked as if the defensive backfield, which featured several new and young players, was making significant progress. Prior to the bye week – essentially the first half of the season – the Patriots only gave up one 300-yard passing game (Denver). Since then, however, they've surrendered three. Each time they've done so, they've lost the game.
Meanwhile, on special teams, there haven't been many glaring weaknesses, but neither have there been many reasons for optimism. Against Miami, the Patriots used at least three different return-men combinations, even having Welker return the last one.
"We certainly weren't productive on our kickoff returns yesterday," Belichick admitted. "Some of it was blocking and execution and timing things, but we just didn't do a good job. Really, it's an area that we need to improve in all the way across the board. I'm not saying it's the returner – it's execution, timing, finishing blocks.
"I thought we were close earlier in the year and then the last three weeks it hasn't been as good as we would like for it to be. Last week, we had Terrence [Wheatley]back there withMatt [Slater],but he was inactive [for Miami], so, we had Darius [Butler]. Darius played quite a bit on defense yesterday. We just felt like, at that point in the game, Wes was our best option on that last one."
Could there be a mental element to New England's poor play? Have they lost confidence in themselves? Are they panicking when the games and scores get tight?
Most importantly, what can be done to reverse this discouraging trend in the final quarter of the season as the Patriots fight for a playoff spot?
"It's really frustrating. We've always been a team that's been able to overcome situations and play through things and we haven't been able to do that," Welker continued. "We obviously need to look in the mirror, including myself, and when it comes to those crucial situations, we need to capitalize."
"Being mentally tough to overcome adversity. And when things don't go your way, you've got to fight back," offered Brady. "That's a challenge for all of us. At times I think we do, and other times I don't think we fight very hard."
Linebacker and co-captain Jerod Mayolikened the Patriots remaining schedule to "a one-game playoff every week."
"It's like having the lead in the fourth quarter," he went on. "We need to come up with plays and take it one day at a time. We know we can play a lot better than we did [against the Dolphins]."
"I think we have to play harder and do all the little things that made us good in the first place," Meriweather suggested.
"This team has a lot of resiliency," Banta-Cain insisted. "Now that our backs are against the wall, we should come out swinging."
Optimism may be what the Patriots need most, but Welker remained realistic, concluding that his team has "a long way to go on all three sides of the ball."
Problem is, they only have a short time left.
Brady banged up?
On Friday's injury report, Brady was listed as probable with his typical right shoulder problem, but also with a finger issues. Prior to the Dolphins game, reports circulated that it was the ring finger on his right (throwing hand) that was giving him trouble.
You also may have noticed Brady leave the field immediately after throwing his 81-yard touchdown strike to Randy Moss in the first quarter, only to return in time for New England's next offensive series.
The two issues appeared to be unrelated. The official word from the sidelines during the game was that Brady was questionable to return to the game because of an arm injury.
Asked about the QB's condition afterward, Belichick would only say, "He played the whole game, yeah, he played the whole game."
Brady was equally mum on the subject when reporters brought it up.
"I just had to come in here and get some stuff taken care of. I'm not going tell you guys, so …
"There are a lot of guys that are banged up this time of year," he added. "You've got to get the job done. If you're out there on the field you're expected to go out there and play great. At times we did that and other times we didn't. There are a lot of guys that are banged up. I don't think many guys are 100%, I really don't. It's late in the year, it's 12 games, it's a physical game and you still have to go out there and get the job done."
Monday locker room notebook
The day after the Dolphins loss, New England's locker room at Gillette Stadium was a quiet one. RB Laurence Maroney, who usually entertains reporters' questions on Fridays, was gracious enough to do so on Monday, as was DL Jarvis Green.
A few other players breezed through on their way to and from meetings and treatment, but otherwise, it was an uneventful afternoon in Foxborough. The team gets back to work on Wednesday for this week's home game against the Carolina Panthers.