Now Is Not a Good Time For Patriots to Fall Apart

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Now Is Not a Good Time For Patriots to Fall Apart There is a noticeably uneasy feeling in Foxborough this week.

Players are showing up late to meetings. The quarterback is using the media to call out his teammates who may or may not have already checked out on this season. And a veteran is taking public shots at head coach Bill Belichick.

Where are the Patriots, and what have you done with them?

Oh, right. Mike Vrabel is in Kansas City, Richard Seymour is in Oakland and Tedy Bruschi is in makeup at ESPN.

And, as a season that started with such promise unravels with each week, it is painfully obvious that the Patriots miss their leaders. Right now, at least on defense, they are a ship without a captain.

On Wednesday, Tom Brady scolded his teammates in his weekly news conference for a lack of focus, saying if practice takes two and a half hours, then guys just need to get on board with it.

That morning, four Patriots — Randy Moss, Adalius Thomas, Derrick Burgess and Gary Guyton — all arrived late for a morning meeting. They claimed they were late because of the winter weather, even though that didn?t seem to be a problem for the rest of guys in the room.

Belichick sent them home, and it clearly sent a message to his team. I?d argue he sent another one to the rest of us: This team is a mess.

On Thursday, a clearly peeved Thomas responded to Belichick?s punishment with this classic blast: "You leave home, there are people there, cars sitting in the road, you're sitting there, what are you going do? It's not the Jetsons. I can't jump up and fly."

Hmm. Wanna bet Adalius doesn?t see the field on Sunday?

Look, it?s clear that Thomas and Burgess are the problem children in this locker room. Thomas fell out of favor with Belichick long before this. And Burgess? next big play for this team will be his first one.

The real concern for this team has to be Moss, given his history for becoming disinterested with running routes when his team starts losing. Say what you want, but there were clear indications of that in last Sunday?s loss to Miami. He missed a crucial block on a screen to Kevin Faulk, and he probably could have done more to bail out Brady on that interception in the end zone (though it was mostly on the quarterback for throwing a bad pass). Which Randy Moss is going to show up in these final four weeks? Does Belichick?s wrist slap for his tardiness just alienate Moss instead of motivate him?

I believe Moss has too much respect for Brady and Belichick to simply bail on them at this point, especially with a one-game lead in the AFC East.

Here?s hoping I?m not wrong.

Four Downs: Patriots (7-5) vs. Panthers (5-7), Sunday, 1 p.m.
First: Brady questionable
Tom Brady is listed as questionable for Sunday?s game, suffering from any and all of the following injuries: rib, finger, right shoulder, sleep deprivation (his wife gave birth to a baby boy this week). Brady missed two days of practice during the week, but given the Patriots' rather precarious playoff position it?s fair to assume he?ll make every last effort to grind through it.

Second: Stay grounded
Even if Brady does play, his absence in practice could cause the Patriots to lean a little more on the running game since the days he missed were installation days for the offense. Also, the Panthers are giving up an average of 133.3 yards rushing per game. If Fred Taylor returns from an ankle injury, as rumored, look for the Pats to pound the Panthers.

Third: Moore of the same?
Quarterback Jake Delhomme is out with a broken finger, meaning Matt Moore will make his second straight start for the Panthers. That would lead you to believe the Patriots' defense will tee off on the inexperienced Moore. But remember, that same logic applied to Chad Henne, who entered last week?s game with the Pats averaging 168 passing yards. He carved up New England for 335 yards.

Fourth: Stop it
Bottom line is this: The burden of beating Carolina will fall largely on the Patriots' defense. This year, the D has yet to show that it can make a stop in a crucial game, and nothing suggests it can break that trend in the final four weeks of the season.

Forward Progress
1. Cleveland Browns
: Finally (finally!) beat the Pittsburgh Steelers on Thursday night, thanks to a sack-happy defense and Josh Cribbs. The 13-6 win might?ve even saved head coach Eric Mangini his job. Honestly, Cleveland, I?m not sure that?s a good thing.

2. LaDainian Tomlinson: Who woke up LT? The Chargers' running back has eight touchdowns since Week 8, proving he?s still a threat to score even if his 100-yard-game days are essentially done.

3. Cincinnati Bengals: Specifically, the defense, which ranks fourth in yards allowed and checks in as the stingiest in the NFL in points allowed. And you wonder how the Bengals could be 9-3 this year?

Down and Out
1. Adrian Peterson
: Held to 19 yards on 13 carries in a Week 13 loss to Arizona. A quick check of his career numbers tells us that?s his second-worst game as a pro.

2. JaMarcus Russell: The Raiders' quarterback says he?s embarrassed to lose his starting job to Bruce Gradkowski. What should really embarrass the former top draft pick is that the journeyman Gradkowski played better in one game (308 yards, three touchdowns, no interceptions) than Russell has in any NFL game.

3. Pittsburgh Steelers:
The defending champs lost to the Raiders and the Browns in a span of five days. Worst. Week. Ever.

Film Room

Bill Belichick spending a little quality time with the Bengals' Chad Ochocinco before a preseason game this year.

Fantasy Fix
If you had given up on Laurence Maroney, you might want to revisit that this week against the Panthers. If Brady is ailing — and especially if he?s out — the Patriots will likely lean heavily on their ground game. I?m not a betting man, but I?d be shocked if Maroney didn?t find the end zone on Sunday.

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