FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — The game was just six minutes old and the New England Patriots already were getting booed by their own crowd.
As Shonn Greene crossed the goal line for a 1-yard touchdown run on the New York Jets’ first series on Sunday, the home fans jeered. They were upset about a 76-yard drive in which the Patriots’ shaky secondary allowed two long completions, for 24 and 26 yards, and was flagged for holding.
By the time the game was over — and the Patriots had avoided a second straight loss in which they coughed up a double-digit, fourth-quarter lead — those same fans were cheering. But that noise after a 29-26 overtime win that came down to the last play couldn’t drown out the critics, including coach Bill Belichick.
“There are a lot of things we need to work on,” he said.
Start with the pass defense.
It allowed Mark Sanchez to complete five passes of from 21 to 26 yards. One week earlier, he threw for a total of just 82 yards. So far this season, the Patriots have allowed 35 completions of at least 20 yards, an average of five per game. Tom Brady has just 20 covering that distance.
“No comment,” starting cornerback Kyle Arrington said of those big gainers. “We’ll go back, see what we can improve. It’s all about getting better from here.”
The Patriots were short-handed with both starting safeties Patrick Chung and Steve Gregory sidelined on Sunday. Devin McCourty, who has struggled at cornerback, moved to safety and played better.
“There’s no defense that’s designed to give up 50-yard pass completions or anything like that,” Belichick said Monday. “That’s really the worst thing that can happen defensively, is for the offense to get all their yardage or score on one play and not make them drive the ball and execute a number of plays.”
The offense has had its own problems, despite leading the NFL in total yardage. It’s scored just two touchdowns in each of the last two games. It’s settled for too many field goals that left three games to be decided in the final seconds, including a 24-23 loss to the Seattle Seahawks in the Patriots previous game after they led 23-10 in the fourth quarter.
Tight ends Rob Gronkowski (offseason back surgery) and Aaron Hernandez (sprained ankle) have been playing at less than full strength, and Brady completed just one pass for six yards on Sunday to Brandon Lloyd, signed in the offseason as a deep threat.
“It really wasn’t our best day in terms of execution,” Brady said after finally getting the offense going on its last two possessions against the Jets. Each covered 54 yards and led to the tying and winning field goals by Stephen Gostkowski.
“We have to nail those things down,” Brady said. “A lot of those inconsistencies, you don’t score points.”
Inconsistency also was a problem on special teams, specifically the play of kickoff returner McCourty. He took one back for a 104-yard touchdown after Greene scored, and the Patriots tied the game 7-7. Then he lost a fumble bringing back a kickoff after Nick Folk had tied it at 23 with 2:06 left in the fourth quarter. But the Jets managed just another 43-yarder by Folk with 1:37 remaining.
“My teammates saved my life,” McCourty said. “I just have to do a better job on holding the ball.”
Despite the concerns on offense, defense and special teams, the Patriots (4-3) lead the AFC East and are one of just three teams in the conference with a winning record. On Sunday, they’ll reach the midpoint of the season when they face the St. Louis Rams (3-4) in London.
Then they’ll have a bye to regroup for the second half, the time of the season when they excel.
They were 16-0 in that stretch the past two years after going 11-5 in the first half. In Belichick’s first 12 years as coach, the Patriots were 76-20 in the second half and 63-33 in the first half.
In fact, their record has improved in each four-game segment of Belichick’s tenure. They were 31-17 in the first four games over the past 12 seasons, 32-16 in the second four, 36-12 in the third four and an impressive 40-8 in the final four.
“There are always things you can learn about your team,” offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said, “so that, hopefully, you’re playing your best football as you head into the last half to last quarter of the season. So, hopefully, you’re really peaking at the right time.”
Belichick knows that how a team is playing going into the playoffs is critical. The Patriots have reached the postseason in eight of the last nine years, missing only in 2008 when Brady suffered a season-ending knee injury in the opener. And, despite their shortcomings, they should get there again this year.
“I think we’ve improved every week,” Belichick said. “I think other teams are improving, too. They should be. We’re practicing. We’re playing. Everybody is getting better. We just have to get better faster than our opponents are getting better.”