Commentary

Take the good with the bad

Patriots tighten grip on AFC East but don't look strong doing so

Updated: December 21, 2009, 7:19 AM ET
By Mike Reiss | ESPNBoston.com

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- Almost everything went the Patriots' way on the NFL scoreboards Sunday -- a victory over the Bills and losses by the Dolphins and Jets.

They now have a two-game lead in the AFC East with two games to play. A win over the Jaguars next Sunday at Gillette Stadium clinches the division crown and would give the banged-up club an important week to recover before the playoffs.

In that respect, Patriots followers can't ask for much more.

Or can they?

While the Patriots are closing in on one of their first goals each year -- winning the division -- they aren't doing so convincingly. Unlike many of the past Patriots teams that annually have built momentum in December, this club seems to make things hard on itself.

Sunday's 17-10 road win over the Bills was the latest example.

The Patriots led 14-3 at the half, but once again couldn't deliver the knockout punch. Instead, it took a clutch third-down Tom Brady-to-Wes Welker 8-yard connection with 2:08 left to officially put the check mark in the win column.

[+] EnlargeTom Brady
AP Photo/Dean DupreyWhile Tom Brady found some positives to take out of Sunday's win, he knows the Patriots have to do better.

For those who focus solely on the bottom line, the final result is all that matters. For those wondering if the Patriots have the ingredients for a championship run, the finer details of how the team is playing could be cause for concern.

"I think that is part of the season that we have been on," Brady said when asked if he's concerned that the Patriots (9-5) aren't playing their best football at this point.

"It has not always been great. I think the positives we take out of this is a road win, a critical third down we hit at the end of the game, which is something we didn't do a couple of times this year. Obviously we have to try to find ways to play better."

One trend that could ultimately doom the Patriots is their suddenly sagging offensive production. A unit that averaged more than 28 points per game a month ago has produced 17, 21, 20 and 17 in the past four games. To hang with the high-scoring Colts and Chargers -- if the Patriots are ultimately fortunate enough to be in that position in the playoffs -- they'll need to see those numbers spike to early-season levels.

New England managed just three second-half points Sunday against the Bills.

"We can't come out in the second half and play the way we played," left tackle Matt Light said. "We tried to run out the clock and gave them another shot. Overall, we won and it was a good effort, but there are a lot of things we can learn from it."

As the Arizona Cardinals proved last year, teams can still learn hard lessons at this time of year and make a championship run, a reminder that style points aren't everything, even this late in the season. It was Week 16 when the Cardinals absorbed a 47-7 snow-filled shellacking by the Patriots last season, which many players later fingered as the catalyst for their surge to the Super Bowl.

Do the Patriots have a similar run in them?

Based on Sunday's win over Buffalo, it would take a real optimist to respond with a decisive yes. But give the Patriots credit for this: They live to fight another week, and still have hope that many teams would long for at this time of year.

"It was ugly, no doubt," Light said. "[But] I don't think anyone cares how you win a game. I certainly don't. This team has always been good at taking a win any way we can get it, especially on the road. We have guys that understand it's late in the season. It's going to be tough and it gets harder. This was huge for us."

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPN Boston. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.

Mike Reiss

ESPN New England Patriots reporter

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