The Patriots did the expected last week and easily took care of the winless Colts at Gillette Stadium. Heading into the fourth quarter the home team held a commanding 31-3 lead and the hapless Colts looked every bit the part of the league's worst team.
Then the final period came and suddenly things shifted. The defense that had forced many three-and-outs earlier couldn't come up with a stop against backup quarterback Dan Orlovsky. The offense, which had scored touchdowns on four straight possessions in the middle of the game, couldn't even pick up a first down against the league's 31st-ranked rushing defense.
What had been a laugher quickly turned into a nailbiter as Deion Branch was forced to recover an onside kick in the final minute to preserve the victory.
There was blame to be had all around as the Patriots simply lost focus and couldn't close things out. But there was some question as to which unit deserved more, offense or defense.
That leads us to this week's Samsonite Make Your Case question. Based on the fourth quarter of the Colts game, are you more worried about the offense or the defense?
PFW's Andy Hart says ...
Any honest Patriots fan or observer knows that New England will only go as far as its offense can take it in 2011. That's why, after Sunday's felt-like-a-loss win over the Colts, I really have my doubts about the championship hopes of Bill Belichick and Co.
The matchup against winless Indy was an example of what can happen when the New England offense goes into short slumps within a game. For the sixth time in seven weeks the unit failed to score a touchdown in the first quarter. That type of effort in a postseason game, against an offense that can put points on the board, could dig a hole that's difficult to get out of.
Against the Colts Tom Brady led the Patriots to four straight touchdowns against a suspect defense to turn a struggle into a blowout rather quickly. That's something he and the unit can admittedly do at any time, although it will obviously be more difficult as the temperature drops and the competition on defense improves.
But my biggest fear is the Patriots offense's inability to close the door on the Colts. New England either couldn't or didn't want to run the ball against the 31st-ranked rush defense. It turned three fourth-quarter possessions into three three-and-outs. Suddenly the Patriots needed to recover an onside kick to ensure victory.
We know Brady and the offense is very good. But we also know that even the greatest of offenses find tougher going in the postseason. The Greatest Show on Turf Rams had to win an NFC title game 11-6 in 1999 and won the Super Bowl, by a yard, 23-16.
New England's own 2007 attack won an AFC title game 21-12 and lost the Super Bowl after scoring just 14 points.
Points, yards and offensive play become more difficult in the postseason, especially for passing teams. The Patriots don't have a proven, established running game right now to balance out the offense. When the passing game goes in slump, there is a very good chance the team will be in a dogfight like it was late against Indy. We are seeing that without a deep threat or a running game, the offense as constituted isn't slump-proof. Against a better opponent, better quarterback, that could very well have turned into a loss.
New England will only go as far as the offense can take it in 2011 and the group has looked a bit more defendable of late than it did to start the year. That has me starting to worry.
PFW's Paul Perillo says ...
The offense in no way deserves a free pass for not recording a first down in the fourth quarter, but it did put 31 points on the board and gave the defense a 31-3 lead. Really, that should be enough to expect an easy victory.
The defense has struggled to stop the passing game - even against mediocre quarterbacks like Dan Orlovsky - all season long. Once the Colts decided to stop running the ball, the Patriots couldn't stop them. This has me concerned moving forward when it's assumed they will be facing quality opponents in the playoffs.
Over the past month or so I was starting to get encouraged by what I felt was some improvement. The pass rush was starting to show signs of life and the coverage seemed to be a bit more effective than it had been. And the run defense has been stout all season long.
But that improvement has quickly given way to concern again, especially after watching that fourth quarter. If Orlovsky, a guy who's never participated in a victory in 16 NFL appearances as a quarterback, can light up this defense it's hard to imagine Ben Roethlisberger, Joe Flacco or any of the other playoff quarterbacks not doing the same.
I understand that much of the Colts success came after the game had become a blowout, but that should make the defense's job easier. Unfortunately, it wasn't.
Now it's the fans turn to cast their vote in this week's Samsonite Make Your Case poll.