EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — The New England Patriots didn’t lose Sunday because Bill Belichick elected to kick off in overtime — though it certainly didn’t help. They also didn’t lose because the New York Jets are the better team.
The Patriots lost 26-20, like their other two defeats this season, because injuries are ravaging their offense and defense.
Patriots fans don’t want to hear it — I learned that the hard way after their Week 13 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles — but match New England against the Jets with Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola, Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung and a healthy Dont’a Hightower, and the result Sunday would have been much different.
“It’s tough,” Patriots quarterback Tom Brady said after losing left tackle Sebastian Vollmer to a leg injury less than five minutes into the game. “We’ve had so many guys that have stepped up and have tried to do a great job. We just had some bad luck, truthfully.
“The game always has ebbs and flows, and (the team) is missing some guys, but I don’t think we’ve ever used those excuses, and we had opportunities to win this game. Hopefully we can get healthy, and we’ve just got to win one game next week. I’m glad we fought to the end. It’s a good football team, and we can see them again, so we’ve just got to do a better job if we do.”
The Patriots never use will injuries as an excuse. Case in point:
James White: “Injuries happen on every team. There are no excuses. Guys just have to step in and fill those roles and help the team win.”
Rob Gronkowski: “We just have to keep finding ways. Guys stepped in and did a good job. We just didn’t make enough plays.”
Malcolm Butler: “It’s not an excuse. Whoever is out there is out there. You just have to get the plays done. It’s not a guy missing that is messing up. It’s just playing football.”
Brady, too, is toeing the company line, but it’s also obvious he can see how good his team will be when players such as Edelman and Amendola once again can be used as safety valves over Keshawn Martin, Brandon LaFell and Chris Harper.
“A lot of guys have been in and out of the lineup,” Brady said. “A lot of guys coming in off the street trying to play and help us win. It’s never easy. This time of year, a lot of guys are fighting through bumps and bruises. If we just get our guys, everyone out there and practice together and see what we’re made of, I think that’ll be a great thing, but in the meantime, you’ve just got to keep, individually, trying to get better on the practice field, in the game, see what you could do better, because you never know whose number is going to be called in the playoffs.”
He also knows that no one in the NFL is crying because the Patriots must go the rest of the season without 20 players who are on injured reserve, including left tackle Nate Solder, starting running backs Dion Lewis and LeGarrette Blount and pass rusher Dominique Easley.
“I know we’ve had six or seven weeks where critical players have gone out for extended periods of time,” Brady said. “I don’t think anybody’s feeling sorry for us. I’ll say that. So, the guys who can do something about it and make a difference that are on the field have to go out and try to play well and win for this team, win for the guys who aren’t out there playing with us.”
Solder and Co. aren’t coming back, but if the Patriots face the Jets again in the playoffs, they’ll likely have Hightower at 100 percent, and Edelman, Amendola, McCourty, Chung and potentially Vollmer back.
The issue, of course, is two-fold. The Patriots are missing key players, and their reserves aren’t stepping up. The Patriots had just 63 yards on 22 carries. LaFell was targeted only once and had a 19-yard reception. Harper, called up from the practice squad Saturday, wasn’t targeted. Brady went 22-of-31 passing for 221 yards with one touchdown and one interception without two of his top three receivers.
The Patriots missed their safeties, too. Cornerback Logan Ryan didn’t have protection from McCourty on deep passes — including a 33-yard touchdown — to Brandon Marshall, and Tavon Wilson gave up a 48-yard catch to Quincy Enunwa in overtime.
The Patriots’ loss is disappointing for the team and its fans, but it’s not crushing. They still can beat the Miami Dolphins in Week 17, finish 13-3 and clinch home-field advantage throughout the playoffs with the AFC’s No. 1 seed. But a win Sunday would have meant being able to rest starters, and that would have been extremely valuable as key players keep going down.
Thumbnail photo via Ed Mulholland/USA TODAY Sports Images