EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

November 17, 2008

Pats need only to be like '07 Giants

Bill Burt

FOXBORO — Welcome home, New England Patriots fans.

This — 6-4 in mid-November — is more realistic. This is the kind of team, good but not great, you were bred on as a Patriots fan the last decade, two or three.

Close games, including a painful heartbreaker or two (see: Indy, Jets losses). Hating the New York Jets and Miami Dolphins (no explanation needed). And being the underdog (the Dolphins are favored by two points for Sunday's game in Fort Lauderdale).

Sure, the lack of certitude has bruised the ego a bit, but this might not be a bad place to be going forward.

For the first time in a long time, the Patriots are under the radar. If the playoffs were to start this week, the Patriots would be out.

There will be "must wins" along the way, like this coming Sunday, but the pressure is off after last Thursday's impressive "loss" to the Jets in overtime.

That, as we found out the hard way the first Sunday in February, is not necessarily a bad place to be.

As Exhibit A for our point is the 2007 world champion New York Giants.

Through 11 games a year ago, the Giants were 7-4, and that fourth loss came Nov. 25, a 41-17 drubbing at the hands of the, get this, Minnesota Vikings, at Giant Stadium.

If you want to get technical, if not for three freakish plays (two interception returns for a TD and an 88-yard TD run) in the fourth quarter against the (7-9) Buffalo Bills, overcoming a 21-17 deficit, the Giants might have been in danger of losing their last three games of the regular season.

What the 2008 Patriots have in common with those Giants, besides the "radar," is that the Patriots can run the ball a whole lot better than they did a year ago.

Of course, running was not a problem because the Tom Brady-Randy Moss-Wes Welker trifecta rendered pounding the football up the field unnecessary. That is, until the Super Bowl.

The Patriots are averaging 132.2 yards per game on the ground versus 115.7 yards a year ago. And that comes despite losing three "starting" running backs.

While the Patriots showed flashes of rushing brilliance last fall and early winter — Maroney rushed for 100-plus yards in four of the last six games — when it mattered most, the Super Bowl, it was nowhere to be found.

Once the Giants had figured out how to knock Brady down, the Patriots didn't have a dependable running game to quell the onslaught of Brady Killers.

What the Patriots also have going for them is that there is not a scary team out there in the AFC. The closest, the undefeated Tennessee Titans, are tough to figure. They have a great defense, allowing only 13.1 points per game, but their offense, ranked 20th in yards, isn't impressive.

But the Titans are a long way off. The Patriots must contend with Miami, Indianapolis and Baltimore, all 6-4 like the Patriots, for two available playoff spots.

They play (at) Miami, Pittsburgh, (at) Seattle, (at) Oakland, Arizona and (at) Buffalo. If the Patriots win four of those games, including and especially this Sunday's game, they should be OK.

And "OK" is good enough in November. As the Giants showed us, being "great" and "greater" in January and February means a lot more than being "great" and "greater" in September and October.

You can e-mail Bill Burt at bburt@eagletribune.com