With the NFL playoffs nearing, the New England Patriots stand at 12-0 and remain the pick of most NFL wonks to win the Super Bowl. Odds aside, however, the Patriots remain sorely lacking in two critical phases of their game--two phases in which the Minnesota Vikings largely excel.
In their past two games, both narrow victories over otherwise struggling teams, the Patriots have begun to show some vulnerability. Analysts have noted the Patriots' inability to stop the pass and the ability of smart defensive coordinators to create unfamiliar blitz packages to put pressure on Patriots' quarterback Tom Brady. And while those two ingredients appear to have been part of the make-up of the Patriots' past two games, there are two far more troubling common themes from each of those two games--at least for the Patriots--that extend beyond the past two weeks.
Against both the Eagles and the Ravens, the Patriots had difficulty making defensive adjustments. Against the Eagles, a team starting the suspect A.J. Feeley at quarterback in place of the injured Donovan McNabb, the Patriots clearly game-planned to stop what appeared to be the Eagles' only offensive threat, Brian Westbrook. The Patriots had modest success against Westbrook, holding him to 52 yards and one touchdown on 17 carries, but much less success against the far-less threatening Feeley, allowing 345 passing yards and three touchdowns.
Facing a similarly challenged Ravens' offense, the Patriots appeared not to game-plan at all on defense, allowing Kyle Boller to pass for 210 yards and two touchdowns--a quiet triumph for the former first-round pick turned benchwarmer. Not to be outdone, the Patriots' defense surrendered 138 rushing yards and a touchdown to Willis McGahee, who surpassed 100 yards rushing for just the fourth time this year and bested his previous season-best rushing total of 114 yards attained against the Buffalo Bills.
For many NFL teams, the Patriots' flaws would be welcome. But for a team with designs on the NFL Championship, the Patriots' flaws could be crippling. With four-touchdown leads in numerous games this season leading opponents to eschew the running game, the Patriots have had the luxury for most of the season of rushing three or four linemen and cherry-picking opposing quarterbacks. In tighter games, however, such as the games against the Eagles and Ravens, the Patriots' defense has been forced to play honest defense and, at times, even to blitz when a pass play was not a certainty. The results have been revealing.
But it hasn't just been the past two weeks that the Patriots have evidenced vulnerability. Against the Indianapolis Colts, the Patriots focused on Manning and left Addai to run wild to the tune of 114 receiving yards and 112 rushing yards. In the absence of Marvin Harrison, the Patriots eked out a victory over the Colts, but, in so doing, they appeared far less invincible than they had against the very numerous dregs of the league that they have pummeled this season.
Equally disconcerting to Patriots' fans as the Patriots' defensive issues should be the Patriots' most glaring short-coming, the inability to run the ball. Whether Laurence Maroney is hurt or Patriots' head coach Bill Belichek simply is so intent on overtaking the Vikings' regular-season points' record that he refuses to coordinate a running game, the Patriots simply have not been able to run the ball when it has mattered most.
Against the Eagles, Maroney led the Patriots in carries and yards with 10 and 31, respectively. He also led the Patriots in these categories against Baltimore, with 13 carries and 44 yards, and against Indianapolis, with 15 carries and 59 yards. As the numbers accurately reflect, the Patriots not only have struggled to establish a running game in their close games, they have also failed even to attempt to establish a running attack.
Price of Tea in China
What all of this has to do with the Vikings should be evident to Vikings' fans. What the Patriots lack, the Vikings' most have, with a sublime running game and a defense that has shown an ability to adjust in most games, despite having to play mostly in tightly contested games.
As most NFL coaches will concede, what matters most in the playoffs is a team's ability to run the ball, stop the run, and slow down the passing game. While the Patriots are on pace to set the single-season record for points scored in the regular season, that record will be meaningless if the Patriots fail to shore up their weak rushing attack and suspect defense before the playoffs begin. If Belichek does not make those adjustments, Patriots fans will be justified in questioning their head coach's seeming dismissiveness of the running game in favor of an aerial show.