17-0. 17-7. 17-7.
The New England Patriots’ losses to the Indianapolis Colts, Buffalo Bills and Miami Dolphins all have one thing in common. The Patriots started slowly on both sides of the ball, and entered the half trailing by multiple scores.
They were down 17 in Indianapolis and 10 against the Bills and, most recently, the Dolphins on Sunday. While they did manage to fight their way back into each of those contests to eventually come within one or two plays of a victory, that slow-cooking recipe obviously left a bad taste in New England’s mouth each time.
With a playoff bout in Buffalo on the horizon, the Patriots need to find a way to start faster. The first step to doing that would be to find out what exactly has been lacking early on during each of those games.
That, however, is not as easy as it sounds.
“I think it’s a number of things, certainly,” said Matthew Slater. “Whether it’s energy, focus, execution, you name it. We’re not doing anything well enough early in the games to give ourselves a chance to get into a rhythm and remain competitive early on.
“Obviously, it’s tough playing from behind and now the next team we’ll play will be the best we’ve seen all year. If we play like that it will be really challenging, of course.”
Fellow team captain Devin McCourty, meanwhile, focused on bad football as the root of the issue. Whether it is bad football on offense, bad football on defense, bad football on special teams, or bad football on too many consecutive snaps, the quality of play early on has not been up to par as of late.
“I would say it’s always something else. It hasn’t been one thing,” McCourty said. “It’s been a combination of bad football, a bad play here, and then instead of having one bad play and moving forward, we have to two good plays and another bad play.
“We let them score on defense, then we throw a pick-six. It’s just a bad combination of complementary football, bad football on both sides of the ball. And then you look up, and you’re in a hole.”
Against the Dolphins in Week 18, that hole began to open up on the first drive of the day. Miami marched 77 yards in 13 plays to go up 7-0. Three plays later, quarterback Mac Jones threw an interception that was returned for a touchdown to put Miami up 14-0.
The Patriots were already down multiple scores before even having gained one first down. They eventually ended up losing 33-24 after another late rally that eventually fell short.
The problem is that this New England team — as was mentioned after the Week 16 loss to the Bills — is not built to win shootouts in a come-from-behind fashion. The offense is too reliant on methodically moving the ball down the field, while the defense is at its best when defending the pass rather than the run.
Getting ahead early is the key to all of that, and something the Patriots failed to do in three of their last four regular season games. The lone exception was a 50-10 blowout win over the Jacksonville Jaguars; New England was up 28-3 at the half.
“We’ve had games where we started fast and we’ve had games where we don’t. It kind of goes hand in hand,” said tight end Hunter Henry after Sunday’s loss in Miami. “We’ve got to execute better earlier in the game. They came out ready to play, and we just didn’t. Put yourself in a hole like we did, it’s very tough. We’ve got to learn from it and just keep going. It’s a new season. It really is. Everything is on the line now.”
“You get in the playoffs, and you get down 17-zip, it’s going to be a long day,” added McCourty. “Everybody’s a good team. Everybody’s fighting to work the next week. You’re not going to be able to do that. Whatever it is, we’ve got to find a way to, no matter what happens, move on to the next play and try to string good plays together instead of having good, bad, good, good, bad. We can’t live like that.”