FOXBORO — For years now, only one measurable outcome has determined a season’s level of success for the Patriots. Either they won the Super Bowl, or they didn’t. Other teams can claim years as rebuilding or making progress but for Bill Belichick and Tom Brady there are no excuses. And if the Pats are going to claim their fourth Super Bowl in the building owned by two of their most hated rivals, they’ve got to use these next three games to correct some flaws that could spell doom in the playoffs.
Here’s a look at what must be done for the Patriots to have any chance at achieving their ultimate goal.
Adjusting the offense
Brady’s two most reliable pass catchers are wide receiver Julian Edelman (76 receptions, 775 yards, five touchdowns) and running back Shane Vereen (40, 373, 1). With that in mind, it’s time for Danny Amendola to break out of a four-game funk in which he’s averaged 4.5 receptions for 38 yards. Maybe the groin is an issue, but Brady needs another dependable pair of hands while rookies Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins work their way back.
Stop the bull rush
The Pats shifted back to a 4-3 base against the Browns that took stress off the defensive tackles and depended on the linebackers to make more plays in the run game. The Browns became the Pats’ ninth consecutive opponent to surpass 100 rushing yards, but their running backs only accounted for 47 yards on 22 carries.
Still, the Pats are 31st in run defense (135.8 yards per game), and the Chiefs (eighth-ranked rushing offense), Bengals (14th), Dolphins (23rd) and Ravens (29th) are possible playoff-opening foes with varying degrees of rushing success.
Contain that quarterback
The NFC has a superior cast of running quarterbacks compared to the AFC, but if the Pats get to the big stage, they’ll have to improve their pocket containment. They’ve allowed quarterbacks to rush for 16 first downs this season, including eight in the last four weeks. The containment breakdowns resulting from defensive ends rushing too far upfield, defensive tackles getting pushed out of their gaps and linebackers committing to the wrong hole. There has to be more defensive discipline because quarterbacks have actively searched for those lanes since Cam Newton’s performance.
Wake up earlier
In five of their last six games, the Pats have dug themselves into holes of 14-0 (Dolphins), 10-0 (Panthers), 24-0 (Broncos), 10-0 (Texans) and 12-0 (Browns). That’s a recipe for a quick playoff exit, especially against a Chiefs pass rush that can tee off or a Broncos team that won’t choke quite as easily in Denver. A slow start can change the dynamic of an entire game plan. While the Patriots work through these other kinks, they can’t set themselves up with this type of disadvantage that seems avoidable.
More Ridley, please
Any hesitancy to play Stevan Ridley might be overshadowed by a thirst to move the football. LeGarrette Blount has run well, and Vereen has elite potential as a pass catcher, but Ridley is a weapon. If the Pats want to realize their Super Bowl hopes, they’ll need contributions from everyone for the next two months.He’s an explosive asset who can thrive when the coaches give him the confidence to produce.