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Column: Patriots not quite at Super Bowl level

November 26, 2018
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New England Patriots' Rob Gronkowski (87) catches a pass for a touchdown during the first half of an NFL football game against the New York Jets Sunday, Nov. 25, 2018, in East Rutherford, N.J. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. (AP) — When Patriots players looked around the locker room Sunday, they saw a generally healthy squad. That’s scary for the rest of the NFL.

Or maybe not.

Unless New England makes some key improvements over the next month — and can anyone doubt the Patriots will, given their track record? — a third straight trip to the Super Bowl will be problematic.

In their 27-13 victory over the game-but-outmanned Jets, the Patriots (8-3) pretty much were workmanlike. Given the competition this season from the likes of the Chiefs, Steelers, Chargers and Texans, that might not be enough.

Sure, the running game was a major positive as New England rushed for 215 yards, led by rookie Sony Michel’s season-best 133 on 21 carries. And the defense was OK.

But these were the Jets, who don’t measure up in any way to any AFC contenders. Things will get more difficult in December, though not terribly so. And in January, unless the Patriots grab home-field advantage in the AFC — they trail only Kansas City by one game and own the tiebreaker — their defense will need to be stout against some high-scoring, big-play offenses.

Considering the holes in that defense that the Jets were incapable of exploiting often enough, New England has some issues it hasn’t been plagued by during its remarkable Tom Brady-led run since the early 2000s.

These Patriots don’t have the look of a team that can avoid shootouts, especially on the road. When you have Brady and Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski — and now Michel — on your side, you’ll score your share of points. They will need to do exactly that, probably throughout the playoffs, to get to the big game in Atlanta.

“You’d love to be perfect out there,” Brady said. “The other teams are well-coached and they have a lot of good players, too. When you win, you feel really good. Obviously, a couple of weeks ago, we did everything the opposite of what we needed to do (at Tennessee). I think we’re doing a better job taking care of the ball; it gives us a much better chance to win games. Scoring more points, converting on third downs, scoring in the red area, all those things are really important that we talked about.

“We made some plays, there are certainly ones we left out there, but we’ll take it and keep moving forward.”

As they move forward, observers’ eyes will be on several areas:

GRONK’S HEALTH

Getting back Gronkowski is huge. He’s a difference maker even when he’s not targeted because of the attention defenses must pay to the star tight end, and the lift he provides teammates. He’s also brittle, an effect of his playing such a rugged game and taking so many massive hits.

Other than Edelman and the ultra-dangerous James White out of the backfield, Gronk’s support crew isn’t intimidating. Josh Gordon remains limited and Chris Hogan is solid, but not a No. 1 wideout. The rest of the cast is, well, the rest of the cast.

More than perhaps ever in his nine pro seasons, Gronk’s availability is paramount.

THE ROAD

New England has played three stinkers away from Foxborough; it’s 5-0 at home. Two of those defeats were to now-mediocre-or-worse Detroit and Jacksonville in September. More worrisome are the sour notes the Patriots played in Music City in Week 10.

Never before had former Bill Belichick assistant coaches outmastered the mentor. It happened with both the Lions and Titans this year, of course.

The Patriots always struggle in Miami, where they’ve lost four of their last five. They also visit Pittsburgh, not quite a palace of horrors — New England has won three of the last four trips to Heinz Field — but by far their most difficult remaining opponent.

Of the eight Super Bowls Brady has guided them to, the Patriots never have missed earning a first-round bye.

THE DEFENSE

Here’s the great mystery.

Other than safety Devin McCourty, a long-time standout who rarely has gotten the credit he deserves, and linebacker Dont’a Hightower, New England appears to lack difference makers. This group is more a collection of parts fit into roles. They don’t get a lot of pressure on passers, aren’t particularly ball hawks, and, far too many times, New York’s so-so group of receivers was roaming free.

Doing that against Antonio Brown, Tyreek Hill or DeAndre Hopkins in the postseason — not a good idea.

Naturally, anyone who dismisses Brady and Co. has little sense of history. The Patriots of Thanksgiving weekend aren’t great. Check in around New Year’s Day to see where they stand.

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