What conclusion can you draw when everything goes wrong, and yet you're right there in it? Who is to blame when a the team plays its worst football in 3+ years, and yet is only a hair away from victory?
That is what happened today against the Bengals. The offense let us down time and time again - especially the offensive line. For a team that often leads the league in 3rd down conversions, there are no excuses for only completing two. This one was all on us.
For those of you who will say the Bengals are a good team or that the pressure up the middle cost us the game, that is a true but flawed argument. There are ways to beat pressure, especially when the other team is rushing five or more on nearly every play. WRs should be getting open down field, and RBs should have had huge gains once they get to the second level. The fact that they weren't highlights the problems with our skill players on offense, especially at the RB position - we have no RB capable of burning a team when they miss tackles. We've got all the bruiser and short-yardage backs an opponent can handle, but the most we'll ever get with a run is likely to be less then 20 yards. Opposing DBs and LBs can simply chase down our slower runner, leaving our running game as a non-factor outside of short yardage or 1st-down runs. With Vareen out, it may be a good idea experiment with players such as Edelman or Amendola catching out of the backfield or on draw plays.
As for the WRs today brought with it a return of the drops, especially late in the game. This, though, didn't seem like the primary problem - for most of the first half and third quarter, Brady just wasn't targeting anyone beyond 10 to 15 yards. When he did, the passes seemed inaccurate. This in turn highlights a severely flawed game plan and problematic playcalling - when the team should have been airing it out, it was instead running with slow backs and short passes. Amendola, Edelman, Dobson and Thompkins are four excellent players, and considering the Bengals were rushing five I do not see why they were not targeted more often. In the 4th quarter this changed, and even with the drops the team was able to move the ball much more effectively. There was a lack of urgency and aggressiveness until the final minutes of the game, which I believe contributed greatly to the end result.
And yet despite all that, we were in it until the very end. Regardless of how good the Bengals played or bad the Patriots offense was, they were given chance after chance to win. There was the quick drive to answer and then come up short with a FG. Then came the fumble, itself a miracle followed by 3-and-out by the offense. The defense steps up and makes a stop, presenting another prime opportunity. The penalty on 4th down. The 15 yard penalty to put the offense in the red zone. How much harder do the Bengals have to try to give away the game before the Patriots take it? How many opportunities do you need?
This brings me to my final point about the team and its ability to go undefeated. Even with all the struggles in the off-season, the team looked like it had a shot at it this year. Get through the Atlanta-Cinci-NO stretch at 6-0 (which is entirely reasonable, as I still think we'll get through it 5-1), and you've got basically one hard game left on your home turf. Unrealistic on a broader scale? Perhaps, but I believe in the "undefeated 'till we aint" idea. The difference between potentially going 16-0 and 13-3 is close games like this. 2007 was not a year in which every game was a blowout - the Ravens, Eagles, even the Chargers in the playoffs had loss written all over them, until the opposing team shot itself in the foot and we took advantage. 2010, 2012, and 2013 were the exact same, except when given the game on a silver platter the Patriots snatched defeat from the jaws of victory as opposed to the other way around.
Going 16-0 is not as hard as people make it out to be. We did it in 2007. The Colts would have done it in 2009 had they chosen to. The Packers were one off game away in 2011. In 2013, the Broncos look as if they will at least get close. That is three, possibly four, teams in 6 years, all of them elite and at the top of the league. For a Patriot team that has been top of the league for the past 10 years, you could almost say its more surprising that we only got close once then that we got close at all.
As a final-final note, hats off to the defense. Once again, they did all they could to put the team in a position to win and played like a damn elite unit. Even with an interior line made up of nobodies, the Bengals were held to a mere 13 points - something any competent offense should easily overcome. Dobson was also the lone bright spot on the offense, and deserves a ton credit - he caught that long pass that probably should have been a TD, and was open several times without being targeted. Hope Tommy Kelly is alright as well.