PHOTO: Pittsburgh Steelers' Kimo von Oelhoffen hits New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) as he releases a pass that was intercepted. The Steelers defeated the Patriots 34-20, breaking the Pats record winning streak at 21. (AP Photo)
By Joe Levit, Patriots Insider
When Miami Dolphins receiver Derrius Thompson caught the game-winning score against Troy Brown and the Patriots with 1:23 left Monday night, it marked a significant shift in the power structure of the NFL heading into the playoffs. Instead of being invincible, the Patriots have a chink in their armor. And now that one deficiency has been made obvious, there are signs of other troubles, both theirs and from other teams, which will make it a very difficult road for the Patriots to reach the Super Bowl this year.
At the start of the season, the Patriots were piling up victories and it looked like they simply couldn't lose. Even when the upstart Pittsburgh Steelers defeated them for their first loss, it seemed like an anomaly, particularly with Corey Dillon out of the lineup. After the appalling loss to the Dolphins though, this year's division dregs with a 3-11 record, suddenly it seems that questions abound about this New England superpower. The team that was once seen as an impregnable force now must deal with a number of issues if they are to get back to the Super Bowl, which probably would be a tougher challenge than them actually winning it, because once there they get to face an NFC team. That conference has been weak all year, and the loss of Terrell Owens for Philadelphia makes the cupboard more bare.
First and foremost is the predicament of the Patriots' defensive backfield. What Troy Brown has done for the team by becoming a fill-in defender the last few weeks is clearly admirable, and his versatility and willingness to play another position shows how well coached the team is, and how dedicated the players are. But, he is the one who allowed that game winner to an arch rival, and it clearly would be better if the team had a true corner in there to control things. From reports, it looks like Ty Law will be back with the team shortly, making perhaps a premature return from injury because of the emergency in this department. How effective he can be, even a few weekends from now, will be in question. And if the team is forced to continue using Brown, it will be done in by a deluge of precision passing in the playoffs.
Another problem that the team faces is the transition of offensive coordinator Charlie Weis from spirited team mentor to Notre Dame head coach. Just the mere fact that his players know that not all of his attention is on them makes it harder to implement his game plans and relate to him when the chips are down. There is no way that him thinking about two jobs doesn't negatively affect them both, even if it is to a small degree. That small degree is often the difference it takes to win in the NFL. Although you can't lay last week's failures at the feet of Weis exclusively, since it is clear that Tom Brady historically suffers some slings and arrows against the Dolphins, it is clear that this shift will impact Brady, who has a great relationship with his coach, and who is the undisputed leader of the team. When Brady has his confidence pulled down a bit, the entire team plays with a bit less surety.
In the playoffs themselves, the Patriots will face at least two very difficult ball clubs. Assuming the Patriots get the second bye week, which isn't a given now, there is a strong likelihood that they will end up facing the Colts, as the Steelers are the higher-ranking team and would face a lower seed. That dearth of defensive back talent will haunt them against Peyton Manning. The Colts almost beat them earlier this year, but made some critical mistakes late to give the game away. The passing game might just rip New England up this time.
But, even if the Patriots get past Indianapolis, the team will probably face Pittsburgh in the conference championship game. Pittsburgh has a burgeoning offense, with newcomer Antwaan Randle El heating things up in the secondary. And, of course the Steelers have one of the top defenses in the league this year. It is true that Corey Dillon being present would help the Patriots control the game more effectively, but this will be a tall order nonetheless. Funny how a fourth-quarter defeat can deflate a team so quickly. The Patriots, though driven, will have a very hard time repeating as league champions.
Joe Levit, based in Boston, writes fantasy football columns for SI.com, thehuddle.com, and fantasysportsjunkies.com. He has published articles in Grogan's, Fantasy Index, Fantasy Sports and Fantasy Football Pro Forecast magazines. He is also a member of the Pro Football Writers of America and the Fantasy Sports Writers of America, and a devoted Detroit Lions fan who can be reached in the Insiders forums.
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