Are your hearts and stomachs still in your throats from Sunday's game? Have they been there all season? Buffalo Bills. Baltimore Ravens. San Diego Chargers. Pittsburgh Steelers. Indianapolis Colts. I know that most people were cringing during the fourth quarter of all of these games. The Patriots either had a lead, or they were trying to stay in a close game- and the outcome of the game was far from certain.
The young Patriots defense has done nothing to ease my worries. I must have aged twenty years just from watching the end of the games. They've made opposing quarterbacks all look like Peyton Manning the entire season. They would give up massive yardage underneath as opposing teams would move the ball effortlessly. It seems no different from last year, when opposing teams could move the ball every game, especially when it mattered. Last year's team lost 5 games where they had leads late in the game. Every time opposing teams would drive down the field in the last couple minutes, Patriots fans everywhere would throw up their hands and go, "Oh no...not again!"
That's the difference between this year and last year. Not the worry and paranoia of a loss- just follow a game thread to see how everyone reacts late in games- because that feeling still remains.
The difference is in how the games play out. Five times the Patriots lost games at the end. One time, against the Bills in Week 1, they came from behind. One time, against the Baltimore Ravens, they managed to hold on for a victory. But they lost five times in close games- and that's five more than any Belichick team should lose.
This season the Patriots went mano a mano with the Buffalo Bills offense for an entire game. It felt like no matter what the Patriots did, the Bills would respond with a score. On the final Bills drive of the game, Brandon Meriweather managed to intercept Ryan Fitzpatrick to end any chance of a loss.
The next game, against the Ravens, saw the Patriots offense come from behind in the 4th quarter and the defense stifle the Ravens offense for five straight drives, spanning the fourth quarter and overtime. The young defense stepped up to the plate to deliver a victory for the Patriots. Everyone held their breath until the final field goal, but the defense delivered in another close game.
Then came the Chargers game. After holding the Chargers to 3 points through three quarters, the defense let up 17 points, including the final two touchdowns of the game. The Chargers had the ball to finish the game and could have driven down the field to score- and they were even lined up to take a field goal opportunity. The Patriots managed to escape as the Chargers missed the 50 yard kick in the closing seconds of the game. The defense didn't allow the Chargers to get close for an easier field goal attempt. Once again, the defense held.
The Patriots beat the Steelers to the tune of 39-26. 23 of the Steelers' points were in the 4th quarter. Luckily for the Patriots, the offense was able to answer every Steelers' score. The Steelers managed to drive down the field every time they had the ball in the 4th quarter, just like the Chargers, except for one set. What happened? James Sanders intercepted Ben Roethlisberger for a touchdown. The Steelers even managed to drive down the field in the closing minutes of the game, but the Patriots were too far away for a score to alter the outcome. Despite the flurry of Steelers scoring, the Patriots managed to win.
Then, Sunday against the Colts. The Patriots were up big in the 4th quarter, just like the Chargers and Steelers game. Peyton Manning was able to drive down the field on all three offensive sets for the Colts, the first two resulting in touchdowns. The final drive, with the Colts in scoring position to tie the game and take it to overtime, saw Manning throw a poor pass and saw James Sanders intercept the ball to seal the win.
Last year, 5 losses when the Patriots held a late lead.
This year, 5 victories where the defense did just enough to hold on to the win.
Both years, my stomach sticks in my throat for 60 minutes.
This is a new team that does what it takes to win games. They may not win them pretty, but they still manage to win the game. Has anything changed? This is a much younger defense than last season, yet they're playing stronger than their 2009 counterparts. This team is forging its own identity. They know that they'll do just enough when the game is on the line.
Is the sickness we all feel at the end of games justified? Maybe. All I know is that the Patriots are winning the close games, no matter what my stomach says differently.