What a difference two games can make. In their first 11 games of the season, the Patriots offense was reliant on the big play. This was a change in New England since the Patriots have won their three Super Bowls by using a short, chain-moving passing attack and a physical running game when they had the lead to bleed the clock. After victories over the Jets and Bills, it appears the Patriots of old are back.
Time of possession doesn't mean everything but it's an important factor when gauging the Patriots success over the last few years. Since 2001, the Patriots are 41-5 when they hold the edge in time of possession and 24-16 when they don't. With David Givens, Troy Brown, Corey Dillon and Kevin Faulk back in the lineup, the Patriots have been able to go back to the kind of offense that seems to suit this team the best.
In their first 11 games, the Patriots had 19 pass plays of over 30 yards. In their next two games, New England had only one, a 40-yard reception to Givens against the Bills. No one is complaining if the Patriots score quickly but as the year winds down and the weather gets worse, it's more difficult to throw the ball long all the time. Patriots fans are now watching an offense they are used to seeing around these parts.
]()Tom Brady** is starting to spray the ball around again to different receivers. This not only moves the football down the field and helps the defense stay fresh, it also keeps opponents off balance. Against the Jets, five different receivers had at least four receptions. A week later in Buffalo, six different receivers had at least three receptions. Brady was an efficient 56-out-of-75 in those two games with 600 yards passing.
With Brown and Givens back in the lineup Brady can spread the ball around more to his receivers but the play of Faulk has been huge. In his first two games after returning from a broken bone in his foot, Faulk caught 10 passes for 135 yards. He touched the ball 10 times on third down and converted six of those into first downs. Overall against their two AFC East rivals, New England converted 19 of their 32 third-down attempts. An impressive number considering the Patriots were only converting 37.6 percent of the time on third downs before Faulk came back against the Jets.
"We missed him for a long time," Brady said. "He's been a spark. He's made some great runs, some great catches and we're going to need him down the stretch."
While Faulk, Brown and Givens have provided a boost for the passing game, the return of Dillon has done the same for the running game. The Patriots were forced to go with a committee approach at running back when Dillon was nursing a calf injury. It worked for a couple of weeks but against the better teams in the league, the Patriots need their workhorse and that horse is Dillon.
As a team, the Patriots ran for 146 and 159 yards against the Jets and Bills and Dillon led the way with 167 yards, including a 102-yard performance against Buffalo. If the Patriots can get their running game going, it will keep them out of the third-and-longs that have plagued them in their five losses. Dillon may not be back to where he was in 2004 but he's starting to get healthy and run with more authority. That's not good news for opposing defenses.
"Just getting healthy and being able to get back out there is refreshing," Dillon said after the Bills game. "The biggest thing for me is winning games – that's what it boils down to. You keep the chains moving, you're keeping drives alive, eating up clock. That's what you want to do."
The Patriots are getting healthy at the right time of year and with their core players back on the offensive side of the ball, they're slowly starting to look like the Patriots of previous seasons. If they can continue to improve and build confidence over the final few weeks of the season, this could be a very dangerous offensive football team heading into the playoffs.
Rice is still cooking in Tampa
Defensive end Simeon Rice is having another fine season for the Buccaneers. He currently leads Tampa Bay with nine sacks and he has amassed 66 sacks in his last 60 games, tops in the NFL over that span. The Bucs defense ranks second overall in the NFL but they haven't gotten as much pressure on the quarterback as they have in past seasons. Rice's nine sacks are one-third of the team's total for the year and the Patriots know keeping him away from a hobbled Brady will be a challenge on Saturday.
"He's tough," Christian Fauria said. "He has tremendous quickness off the ball and he's relentless rushing the quarterback. It will be a challenge for us to block him but you can't let a guy like that get off. Once he gets going and he knows he has an advantage on you, it's going to be a long day for your quarterback."
With Brady being questionable for Saturday's game with an injured shoulder and shin, the Patriots really can't afford to let Rice have a big day. Expect to see them double-team the sack artist often and try to run the football right at the Tampa Bay defense early to take some of the pressure off Brady.
The Patriots haven't defeated the Buccaneers since 1988, making them just one of two teams the Patriots have yet to beat since Robert Kraft purchased the team in 1994. The other team is the Washington Redskins, who the Patriots haven't beaten since 1972…The Bucs are the only team in the NFL Brady has never started against and one of only three teams he hasn't beaten as the Patriots starting quarterback. The Redskins and Green Bay Packers are the other two teams…Deion Branch has recorded exactly five receptions in six consecutive games…Josh Miller leads the NFL with a punting average of 46.0 but Buccaneers punter Josh Bidwell ranks right behind him in second place with an average of 45.9.