Unbeaten but blemished

Jason Cole
Yahoo! Sports

INDIANAPOLIS – There's a quality New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick shares with Hall of Fame coach Don Shula that goes beyond multiple championships into the depths of the coaching psyche.

They are, or in the case of Shula were, miserable after victories; curmudgeons who grade as much on artistic quality as the end result. Belichick is the kind of man who could go to museum and find fault with Monet's brush strokes.

That may explain the reaction of wide receiver Donte' Stallworth, who has learned after only nine games what it's like to work for Belichick. Stallworth was asked about the 146 yards in penalties the Patriots had to overcome in a 24-20 victory over the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday.

"What does it mean? It means I'm not getting on that plane now," Stallworth said of the team flight back and the reaction he expected from Belichick to the 10 penalties, which included a pair of uncharacteristic personal fouls.

"I've never experienced how he does it," Stallworth said. "Just period, how every game, no matter what we do, he's going to find things that we didn't do well and point them out. It's not just nitpicking, but real stuff that can come back and get you beat."

Or, as quarterback Tom Brady put it: "There are probably 20 plays on offense we could go back and look at that we need to improve on … really, everything to this point means nothing. We have a lot of things to work on.”

Of course, nothing has gotten the Patriots beat yet. They improved to 9-0 with the dramatic victory Sunday evening at the RCA Dome. They overcame a 10-point deficit in the final 10 minutes to do so, Brady tossing two of his three touchdown passes in the final quarter.

Meanwhile, they made Colts quarterback Peyton Manning look mortal again, reversing an trend that included a Super Bowl title last season and a 7-0 start coming into this game.

With the victory, the Patriots now control their destiny. They essentially have a 2½-game lead on the Colts for home-field advantage in the AFC playoffs. That means a showdown in the AFC Championship Game (the de facto Super Bowl this season) is likely to be in the bitter cold of a New England January.

But as the Patriots go into the bye week before resuming their march toward a fourth Super Bowl title this decade and perhaps perfection, it's worth thinking about the team in the same way that Belichick might.

In other words, the Patriots do have some flaws. While they're clearly the best team in football, they aren't perfect.

Or as one NFL team scout said Sunday as he watched the game from the Colts press box, "There are some weaknesses there to exploit." Perhaps only Indianapolis is capable of exploiting those weakness (which they did pretty well for 50 minutes), but they are nonetheless there.

First, the Patriots running game is pretty suspect. New England had decent balance for much of the game, running 27 times by design compared to 35 passes that were called (32 throws, two sacks and one scramble by Brady). However, the Patriots' ground game lacks the kind of consistent power that can control the clock or keep them out of a pure spread formation.

Primary running back Laurence Maroney (15-59 against the Colts) is slightly flawed, a cutback runner who runs too high and is susceptible to injury.

"They really miss what (running back Sammy) Morris was giving them because he could pound it up in there and force the defense to respect the straight-ahead run," the scout said. "It's a subtle thing, but it shows up."

Specifically, it shows up against a quick defensive line that can pass rush, which is what the Colts have. Left defensive end Robert Mathis had two sacks and a pressure against Brady and right end Dwight Freeney hit Brady once as he threw. That caused problems for most of the game as Brady, who is in shotgun more often than not this season because of the lack of a strong running game, threw two interceptions.

A solution to the running game problem could be re-signing Corey Dillon, who is talking about a comeback. Short of that, the Patriots may have to live with its current tailback corps.

Another issue is their vulnerable defense, particularly when the game is close.

"They're not used to playing from behind or even right now and they're not built that way," the scout said. "They have really good linebackers, but those guys aren't fast and you can throw on Rodney Harrison these days. He has lost a step."

Take some of that with a grain of salt because Harrison is still both really tough and really smart. He intercepted a Manning pass at one point when it was obvious Manning simply didn't expect Harrison to make a play on the ball.

But the point was backed up by the 73-yard touchdown pass running back Joseph Addai caught just before halftime. Addai grabbed a short throw in the flat and proceeded to weave through the Patriots defense. Addai, who finished with 226 total yards (112 rushing), is definitely a wonderful runner with excellent ability to stay low and avoid contact, but he's not exactly a burner. He makes quick cuts and then gets what he can.

The fact that he was able to run through the Patriots defense so easily, getting past the likes of Harrison and Mike Vrabel along the way, was troubling. It also wasn't unexpected since you had to figure the Colts were playing for a field goal at that point in the game and were looking to pick up 15-yard chunks.

In short, it's the kind of play you can expect Belichick to run over and over again during a tape session this week.

Finally, there were the penalties. Perhaps it was a one-time situation borne of the competitive situation, but the Patriots were flagged 10 times, including five penalties sure to draw Belichick's ire. That included a personal foul and unsportsmanlike conduct penalties against left tackle Matt Light, another unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, an illegal formation and an ineligible man downfield call.

"That's stuff we can't afford to have happen," linebacker Junior Seau said.

To be sure, Belichick will emphasize that point.

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