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Thursday Morning 3rd and Long

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Last weeks loss versus the New York Giants was an electrifying performance that has consistently been compared to the Loss that Shall Not be Named. One moment of absolute joy when Rob Gronkowski caught a touchdown pass on a fourth and long was followed shortly by a New York drive that was a defeating moment for the Patriots defense and its fans.

I'll start by saying I take no solace in this loss. It was brutal, with the only comfort for the rest of my Sunday night being a few unwatched episodes of Showtime's Dexter followed by a new episode later on that night. My attention at times was brought away from the dismay of defeat, but always drifted back to that final drive, and what went wrong for the New England defense.

Tracy White showed why he is a career special teams player. Sergio Brown had his lone snap of the game marred by an awful, atrocious, indefensible pass interference call. The Patriots, while doing their jobs in coverage, forgot to contain Eli Manning while he sprinted for a first down. The wind was taken completely out of my sails- I floated in the football doldrums for a few minutes, unable to understand how the defense had just completely erased a majestic Tom Brady drive that should have sealed the Patriots' sixth victory of the season.

How could White possibly think the Giants would have gone for a run with 18 seconds left and no timeouts?

The silver lining to come from this is the clean slate the Patriots now have. I no longer will have to listen to the broadcasters speak about this streak and that streak for the Patriots- Brady's regular season home win streak, the Patriots home win streak, how few times the Patriots have lost back to back games under Bill Belichick, and so on. All of these are meaningless, but simultaneously meaningful. Much like when the Hooded One tore down pictures of memories from the Super Bowl-winning teams from the past in 2009, the inconsistency of this year's Patriots draws me in even further.

Sure, I'd love another 14-2 season. 2010 had so much promise, and the Patriots showed an unbelievable level of dominance- but I'm almost tired of the "elite" label. I want a hard-working, underdog team that struggles through adversity only to persevere in the clutch moments. This years Patriots are far removed from the Super Bowls of the past dynasty, but are still held to that standard. It's not a news flash that these aren't the same teams, and these players aren't named McGinest, Bruschi, Vrabel, Law, or Brown.

I think that last year's team struggled against the Jets because although they had hit their stride in the second half of the season, they consistently rode Tom Brady's sturdy shoulders to victory as he transcended the label of quarterback. Brady was essentially perfect in the second half of the season, and the level he played at was able to fix anything wrong with any other cog in the system.

This year, the perfect Brady is no more. He's making bad decisions, bad reads, forcing throws, stressing- and his imperfections are going to be what pulls this team together. The Patriots need to struggle, and they need to persevere, if they are going to eventually have the wherewithal to come out a Super Bowl championship team. Think that a 5-3 start diminishes the chances that the Patriots have to win it all? I guess I'm the only one that remembers a 2010 Green Bay Packers team that was 3-3 and finished 10-6 on the season, nearly missing the postseason before making their run. The "perfect" label thrown at the Packers will eventually doom them- I am almost certain they will not defend their title this season. Last years Packers struggled, and consistently had their weaknesses exposed. This year, the Patriots are being labeled the underdogs- the questions are being asked if Bill Belichick has what it takes to be a coach, general manager, and defensive coordinator. Everyone is counting out the New England defense that has none of the playmaking characteristics of their 2010 counterpart.

Let's put a stop to that. 3 losses- all crushing because of how close they were. The three teams that have beaten the Patriots on the season? Well, they're a combined 19-7 this season, and beat New England by 3 points, 8 points, and 4 points respectively. The 8 points itself is skewed, because Troy Polamalu so obviously cheated in punching the ball through the endzone and causing a safety.

I will not go so far as to say that 5-3 and tied for a divisional lead with two other teams is good. But I won't say I'm dissatisfied. I still see fight in our dogs, and the makings of a team that steps up when necessary.

I won't say I was surprised to read about the departure of Albert Haynesworth, or that I'm sad to see him go. I've been a proponent of Kyle Love's abilities since before the season began, and I think that Ron Brace and Gerard Warren are fantastic depth players at tackle- players that won't be pushed around, unlike Albert. His inconsistency bothered me- and the thought that Belichick may have been saving Haynesworth for a more active role in the latter part of the season began to become less and less realistic as I realized the indifference in his demeanor, and disparity of his effort from play to play. I'm happy that Albert is gone, and I'm more than happy that our homegrown Mr. Vince Wilfork is going to be the biggest name on the Patriots' defense going forward. I know that Vince plays hard, and gives his all on every play. I never saw that with Haynesworth, and I'm glad that New England's management decided it wasn't worth a roster spot to try and keep potential on the sidelines at the tune of maybe 20 plays a game and a half of a tackle per game.

Gerard Warren, the early midseason resigning, is a bright spot that I feel has not gotten enough press. Though he has show up little in terms of stats, I see Warren pursuing plays, and giving his all in limited reps.

The other bright spot is that Brandon Deaderick stepped immediately into a starting role after spending the beginning of the season on the PUP list. Through he's not a prototypical defensive end in the 4-3, and fits that role in the 3-4 much better, Brandon seems to get a great push on the line.

I'm wondering if the release of Haynesworth signifies the Patriots trending back towards a 3 man defensive line. Currently, all of the defensive tackle personnel on New England fits the role of a run-stuffing two-gapper rather than a line-pushing pass rusher. However, I'd love to see Mark Anderson get more of a role, and I don't doubt that going forward a line combination of three defensive tackles with Anderson and Andre Carter as DE/LB will be utilized, especially with all of the injuries at the linebacker position.

I've been saying this for a few weeks, and I will continue to repeat it- Brandon Spikes is looking more and more like a perfect compliment to Jerod Mayo as cornerstones of the linebacking corps for the next few years, and I don't even doubt that at some future moment Spikes will be the emotional leader for the defense to Mayo's steady, high level play. Jerod is many things, but I rarely see him emotional, whereas I see the Spikes Shuffle on almost all of Brandon's plays, and I love it. I think that Spikes is going to give the Patriots' defense an identity, especially if he continues to dish out bonecrushing hits like he had on an unsuspecting Giants tight end on Sunday. Not only did Brandon not relinquish a third down conversion, he annihilated Ballard and made a statement in doing so.

This upcoming weekend brings the second game of the year against the Jets, and it is a huge one in terms of the Patriots' chances for the AFC East throne in 2011. At 2-1 so far in the division, a sweep of the Jets will be crucial, especially being that New England has lost to Buffalo and is currently tied with both.

A few things to look for on Sunday:

1. How does Tom Brady respond after a few weeks of mediocrity? The Patriots' offense has been held to 20 points or less in the last three weeks, after a ridiculous 13 game regular season streak of 30 points or more. Brady doesn't need to be perfect, but he has to make more of a point to distribute the football. If Chad Ochocinco is going to get involved, Brady needs to get him the ball, and not just in crisis throws. Chad has to gain a tempo.
2. Much like with #1, Bill O'Brien needs to start mixing up the play-calling and stop relying on two tight end sets so much. The Patriots need to have some parity with four and three receiver sets to make the two tight end sets more effective later in the season. Even if Aaron Hernandez lines up as a wideout, their needs to be more diversity in the gameplan.
3. The Patriots need to focus on doing as good a job against Plaxico Burress and Santonio Holmes as they did in the first meeting this season. If the Jets can establish any sort of rhythm, they will be able to put more pressure on the youthful defensive backs- especially if Patrick Chung is out. With Josh Barrett being placed on IR, the only active safeties leading into this game are James Ihedigbo and Sergio Brown, with Sterling Moore also seeing reps at the position and Ross Ventrone being the last possible option. I wouldn't doubt that if Patriots play with only four defensive backs on the field, Kyle Arrington may see time at safety.
4. Rob Ninkovich has to have his best game, especially in coverage. Gary Guyton needs to make an impact, and step up especially if Brandon Spikes can't play (with a strained MCL, Spikes is most likely out). Jerod Mayo, who is obviously struggling in his return from an MCL sprain, hopefully sees more progression towards his elite, 2010 form.
5. Dan Connolly needs to play better. Logan Mankins, who is also struggling this season, needs to emerge and stop drawing so many penalties.
6. The Patriots absolutely have to run on the Jets, if they have any hope of their passing offense clicking. New York was able to completely stifle an above-average Bills offense last week, and the Patriots need to have some explosive plays in both the running and passing game to keep the Jets honest.
7. Tiquan Underwood hopefully has some sort of impact as a returner, because the Patriots' return game has been brutally bad recently. Danny Woodhead and Julian Edelman are quick, but don't have the breakaway speed to ever run back a kickoff or punt return for a touchdown. Wes Welker needs to be utilized as a punt returner as little as possible, because he can't be taking any extra hits if he's to be fresh throughout the season.