FOXBOROUGH – Need more proof that in the NFL, there are no "gimme" games?
All week long, football observers were saying how easily the Patriots would handle the Oakland Raiders.
Oakland, after all, had the worst rush defense in the league through the first two weeks, and New England was coming off a thrashing of Minnesota that included 150 total rushing yards, 101 by Stevan Ridley. And Raider rookie QB Derek Carr? There was no way he'd be able to function against a Bill Belichick defense... right?
The New England Patriots take on the Oakland Raiders in their home opener at Gillette Stadium on Sunday, September 21, 2014.
For their part, Patriots players were saying the right things all week, about how Carr, despite his inexperience, was nonetheless a dangerous player.
"We need to keep him in the pocket," said DE/OLB Rob Ninkovich, because Carr was so dangerous running the ball when plays breakdown.
Careful what you wish for.
New England had virtually no pass rush against Carr, allowing the youngster to stand in the pocket and complete passes. Carr was far from perfect, but there he was, late in the fourth quarter, driving his team to a potential tying touchdown – in fact, they scored it with about a minute to go, but it was nullified by a holding penalty.
New England's offense, meanwhile, struggled to find its rhythm for the third straight week. In part, that can be attributed to an offensive line that can't seem to settle on five players, particularly the three interior spots.
"A win's a win," tight end Rob Gronkowski maintained afterward. "Every team's good in the NFL. The defense played very well, and we just did what we had to do to get that victory."
When that final Oakland TD was brought back, it gave New England's defense, as Gronk made allusion, the opportunity to close out the game. It came in the unlikely form of a Vince Wilfork interception off a deflected Carr pass.
"I'm not worried about our offense being where we're at because I know those guys are going to get it turned it around," Wilfork insisted, "and once they do, hopefully we can continue to get the ball back and play solid, good defense. Our job is to just continue to play solid defense. Everything will fall on its own because we gave up nine points today and that was enough to get a W."
For two weeks now, the defense has held opponents to under 10 points. That's good, of course. But overall, the Patriots aren't playing the type of football that playoff teams are made of. Not collectively, at least.
"We fought hard and fought through it," cornerback Darrelle Revis said later, searching for positives. "It was an ugly win for us, but sometimes it comes down to that. We showed our character down the stretch. Today is over with. We won. That's my focus. You go back to the drawing board and you make your corrections."
"We definitely didn't have our best game out there," Ninkovich acknowledged. "So whenever you can go out there and get a win and there's a lot more that we can do, you're happy with the victory. I think that there's definitely room for improvement. We've got to do better in all three phases. But it's still early in the year and we're looking forward to our next opponent."
Sixteen points (and no second-half touchdowns yet this season) is certainly not the kind of output the offense wants, or can expect to put up and continue winning games. Especially later in the season when the opponents get tougher.
"We need to be more consistent, absolutely. That's an area we need to improve for sure," admitted left tackle Nate Solder. "It's a matter of improving because it's not one guy, it's not one play. It's a number of plays that we're breaking down and a number of different schemes and a number of different guys and so it comes back down to our technique and things we know and need to improve on."
"We've just got to keep working together as a unit. That starts at practice first," Gronk concluded. "We have to get clicking, for sure. We did enough today to get that victory, but there's always a lot of improvements, starting with myself – better blocks, better routes. Sometimes there's frustration, but you always want to move on to the next play. We did enough this game, but that's not always going to get the job done."
Exactly, Rob. Exactly.