Pats’ worries roll on

Posted Dec. 07, 2009, at 10:08 p.m.

The New England Patriots likely will still make the playoffs as the AFC East champion.

But I’m now convinced that this is little more than a rebuilding season for Belichick and Co.

A 7-5 record after Sunday’s horrid 22-21 loss at Miami leaves New England poised to face a road game in the first round of postseason play, not a good position to be in given that the Patriots are now 1-5 away from Gillette Stadium — with the lone win on a neutral field in London against hapless Tampa Bay.

And with two road games remaining, at Buffalo and at Houston, in Weeks 15 and 17, there’s no indication the road woes are going to be reversed.

So it will be back on the road for a first-round playoff game, and to expect this team to win one road game during the second season, let alone three straight away from home, to earn a trip to the Super Bowl at this point is unrealistic.

Why?

It’s pretty simple. The defense just isn’t what it used to be — nor is the team’s leadership.

With Rodney Harrison and Tedy Bruschi retiring and Mike Vrabel and Richard Seymour being traded during the most recent offseason, New England was gutted of much of its veteran presence — and much of its Super Bowl experience.

In their places have come a new wave of defensive players, and while names like Wilhite, Butler, Guyton, Meriwether, Mayo and Wright may evolve into a championship-level unit, they aren’t nearly there yet.

Thus today’s Patriots defense can’t manufacture a pass rush, and the secondary can’t cover the receivers long enough. So shaky is that group that Belichick, the defensive guru himself, doesn’t trust them on fourth-and-two.

And the offense — including quarterback Tom Brady — isn’t immune from criticism. Take Sunday’s game against Miami, when the Patriots once came up empty on a fourth-and-one inside the Dolphins’ 10-yard line and another time came up empty when Brady threw a red-zone interception.

It’s all frustrating to watch, especially given the team’s tradition of excellence throughout the decade.

At least we’re not alone — the Pittsburgh Steelers lost a home game to the Oakland Raiders on Sunday.

— Ernie Clark

Patriots lacking big-play players

The bloom is officially off the red, white, nautical blue, and new century silver rose for the New England Patriots.

Yes, those actually are the official team colors, and no the current incarnation of the franchise that’s been the inspiration for every other NFL team’s blueprint for success is no longer that, or the league’s standard-bearer for that matter.

This is a team in flux, and it first became that in the offseason when proven, crunch-time veterans like Richard Seymour, Rodney Harrison, Tedy Bruschi, Mike Vrabel, Heath Evans and Larry Izzo either retired, were cut, or traded.

Those absences are not only being felt in terms of on-field production, but maybe even more so in terms of leadership.

Think about it. These Patriots are starting with a bang and finishing with a whimper, they’re showing no semblance of pass defense, are having great difficulty mounting a pass rush, are unable to win road games, and — as of Sunday — losing back-to-back games for the first time in three years.

It’s understandable why some of those veteran departures occurred. You can’t begrudge decorated veteran players like Bruschi and Harrison their desire to relax and enjoy the good life, and the most often repeated criticism of the Patriots the last two or three years has been the relative old age of their starters, especially the de-fense. But therein also lies the problem. In an effort to get younger, the Patriots also became less experienced and less confident. When crunch time comes, these guys are not picking passes off like Harrison, dragging a quarterback to the ground with one arm like Bruschi, or slamming the return man into the turf inside the 5-yard line like Izzo.

The Patriots lack impact or big-play players. Sure they have Brady, Moss, Welker and Faulk, but those guys are all on offense and the sputtering offense has been having its own problems lately.

Can things change? Certainly. Will they? Not soon.

These Patriots should have two losses at the most, but they virtually failed to show up for the second half against the Jets, Saints, and Dolphins and gave three games away.

These Patriots will win the division and will make the playoffs. They will likely even win their first playoff game, but don’t look for much beyond that. They still have a lot of growing to do.

— Andrew Neff

Healthy Bergeron puts Bruins in Cup race

During an early-season NHL game on Oct. 27, 2007, Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Randy Jones delivered a vicious hit-from-behind on Boston Bruins center Patrice Bergeron. Bergeron was nailed into the boards and wound up with a concussion and broken nose. He was taken off the ice on a stretcher and never returned the rest of the season.

You never knew what kind of season he would have upon his return.

It was respectable and it gave something for him to build on.

Despite suffering another concussion, he tallied eight goals and 31 assists in 64 games. He also had five assists in 11 playoff games.

This season, Bergeron appears to be returning to the form that enabled him to rack up 31 goals and 42 assists in 81 games during the 2005-2006 season and 22 goals and 48 assists in 77 games in 06-07.

He has been able to stay healthy and leads the team in scoring with 8 & 15 in 29 games.

Believe it or not, Bergeron, a second-round draft pick in 2003, is only 24.

He has already played in 332 NHL games with 251 points.

The 6-foot-2, 194-pounder is essential to the Bruins’ success. In order to go deep into the playoffs, you need two point-producing centers. The Bruins’ top center is Marc Savard and if they didn’t have Bergeron, opposing teams would be able to load up an effective checking line against Savard’s line.

I’m sure teams still try to neutralize Savard but that enables Bergeron and his linemates to exploit opposing lines.

Bergeron, like Savard, is one of those highly-skilled players who isn’t afraid to get his nose dirty in the high-traffic areas: the corners and the opponents’ net front. He can score and distribute.

Bergeron is also an important member of the power play and penalty-killing units. He won’t hesitate to block shots.

If he can stay healthy, it will significantly increase the Bruins’ chances to win the Stanley Cup.

— LARRY MAHONEY

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