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Patriots have fallen from grace but not the AFC playoff race

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Are the New England Patriots still among the ranks of the NFL's elite? It's a question being bantered about in league circles.

Consider the evidence:

» For the first time in 50 games, the Patriots have suffered consecutive defeats, giving them three losses in their last four games.

» On Sunday, they lost their their first December game since 2006.

» They are 1-5 on the road this season, with the lone victory coming against Tampa Bay in London.

» They are hanging on to a one-game lead in a relatively weak AFC East, a division the Patriots have won seven out of the last eight seasons, most years in dominating fashion.

Lombardi: Fixing the Patriots
Anytime a team is a few plays away from winning games, they can compete against anyone. The ultimate reality of the situation right now for the Patriots is they haven't been executing.

The best team in the league is 12-0. If the Patriots don't turn the ball over on the goal line against the Colts, they convert the fourth-and-2, and are better in the red zone, they win that game and beat the best team. So they can compete, but it's predicated on protecting the ball and execution.

The only way to fix these problems is through execution. The solution lies within the Patriots, not their opponents. Teams that win in November and December execute well and don't make mistakes.

The Patriots can fix their problems. They'll be a dangerous team in the playoffs, because they've proven they can play with the best teams -- particularly the Colts.

-- Michael Lombardi

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New England is showing a surprising vulnerability that few have seen from the franchise in this decade.

Given the highly anticipated return of Tom Brady, the Patriots were roundly touted as Super Bowl contenders heading into the season. However, with four games left, they are headed down the stretch with more questions than answers.

While Brady is leading the league's second-ranked offense, putting up 415 yards a game, the Patriots are no longer the dominant force that took the league by storm in 2007. Although Wes Welker and Randy Moss have continued to play at an all-star level, the team's receiving corps lacks the depth and explosiveness of the previous version.

Sam Aiken and Julian Edelman have shared duties as the team's third receiver, but neither is considered a big-play threat at the position. Aiken, who has spent the majority of his seven-year career as a special teams standout, has come up with a few big plays in spot duty, but has also been plagued by the drops. His inability to deliver big plays consistently has allowed defenses to use a variety of double coverage on Moss and Welker.

Edelman, an undrafted rookie from Kent State, has performed admirably at times, especially when Welker was out earlier in the season, but isn't dynamic enough to warrant special attention from opponents. Though he has tallied 26 receptions for 228 yards in seven games, nearly half of that coming in Weeks 2 and 3 without Welker, he is averaging just 8.8 yards per catch and has only one reception over 20 yards.

Although the Patriots' offensive woes have been troublesome, it has been their scattershot play on defense that has led to their recent demise. The unit has allowed an average of 448 yards in the past two games, and its inability to get off the field in key moments has led to their two-game skid.

Youth and inexperience can be partially to blame for the defensive problems, as the Patriots are fielding six players with fewer than three years of experience in their rotation. The secondary, in particular, is playing with a host of first- and second-year players at key positions. Cornerbacks Jonathan Wilhite and Darius Butler, and safety Patrick Chung are a few of the young players being counted on to make key contributions early in their careers.

Additionally, safety Brandon Meriweather is a third-year pro with only 23 career starts under his belt. Though he has emerged as the Patriots' biggest playmaker in the back end, Meriweather has been caught out of position on occasion and the errors have resulted in big plays in recent weeks.

The Patriots' defensive struggles can also be attributed to the team's non-existent pass rush. The team ranks 28th in the league in sacks and has only one rusher (Tully Banta-Cain) that ranks among the top 50. Without the presence of a consistent rush off the edge, teams have been bombing away at the Patriots' secondary, especially in the second half of games.

Of the team's five losses, three have been the result of squandered fourth-quarter leads. For a team that has been lauded for its ability to finish, the late-game collapses are out of character and indicative of a loss of invincibility.

However, the league shouldn't write up an obituary for the Patriots just yet. The three-time champs have the ability to right the ship prior to the postseason, and could be a dangerous foe for any of the top AFC teams.

Their mid-season matchup with Indianapolis serves as the prime example for their potency. The Patriots dominated the game for the better part of three quarters before a series of miscues allowed the Colts to come back in the end.

Regardless, the Patriots walked away from the game knowing they could go toe-to-toe with the AFC favorite on their home turf, and that confidence could prove to be invaluable in the postseason.

In addition, the team's much-maligned defense still ranks among the elite in total defense (11th) and points allowed (7th) in spite of its failures.

Throw in the presence of ultra-competitive Tom Brady and the masterful schemes of Bill Belichick, the Patriots remain a team to be reckoned with this season.

Capers works more magic

The Packers made a controversial decision to scrap their defensive scheme in the offseason, but with Green Bay's ascension to the top of the defensive charts, the move to install Dom Capers' zone-blitz system must be categorized as an overwhelming success.

Capers, a well-esteemed defensive guru who has orchestrated similar transformations in Carolina, Miami and Jacksonville, implemented a 3-4 system that features a host of exotic blitzes from multiple fronts. Capers' scheme also uses a variety of pre-snap disguises and varied coverage concepts to relentlessly pressure quarterbacks and force turnovers.

Although the Packers got off to a slow start while the players were adjusting to the nuances of the new scheme, the system is beginning to produce the kind of results that Mike McCarthy envisioned when making the move to the 3-4.

The Packers rank first in the league in yards allowed and are currently second in takeaways. Charles Woodson and Nick Collins lead a ball-hawking secondary that has helped the team tally 21 interceptions, tied for second-most in the league with the Buffalo Bills.

Making the Packers' ascension to the top of the defensive charts more impressive is the fact that they have continued to dominate foes without the services of two Pro Bowlers, OLB Aaron Kampman and cornerback Al Harris, both currently on IR. The team has gotten key contributions from a host of young players, like linebackers Clay Matthews and Brad Jones, and CB Tramon Williams.

In addition, the emergence of defensive tackle B.J. Raji as a dominant interior player has helped compensate for their losses. The rookie has been a monster on the inside, and his ability to single-handedly collapse the pocket has afforded the Packers the luxury of using four-man rushes in passing situations.

The Packers' emerging defense is not only changing their identity, but positioning the team to make a deep postseason run.

Raising Arizona

The lingering effects of losing a Super Bowl often brings about a hangover the following season, but the Arizona Cardinals have turned to their defense to remedy the problem.

The team has reeled off seven wins in their past nine games, and their opportunistic defense has been the catalyst. Pro Bowl DE Darnell Dockett has led the charge with seven sacks, and he has teamed with DE Calais Campbell (five) and OLB Bertrand Berry (five) to spark a Cardinals pass rush that ranks third in the league in sacks (35).

New defensive coordinator Billy Davis has tweaked the 3-4 scheme implemented by his predecessor, Clancy Pendergast, to feature more exotic blitzes from multiple personnel groupings to confuse quarterbacks and disrupt their protection calls. When used in combination with some of their conventional rushes, the Cardinals' scheme has proven to be problematic for opponents ill-prepared to deal with the speed and quickness of the team's front line.

The Cardinals' high-octane offense has often been credited with their ascension to the top of the league, but it is their defense that is sparking their run to another division crown.

Broncos' Marshall Plan

The installation of Josh McDaniels' spread offensive system appeared to have a negative effect on Brandon Marshall's production to start the season, but quietly the Pro Bowl receiver is enjoying the best season of his career.

Although Marshall tallied more than 100 receptions in back-to-back years under Mike Shanahan, he has already set career highs in receptions over 40 yards (four) and touchdowns (seven) with four games remaining. In addition, his average of 12.4 yards per catch is comparable to his averages from the previous two seasons (12.2 and 13.0).

Those numbers are especially surprising considering the way McDaniels has utilized Marshall in his system. Marshall has been featured on an assortment of bubble screens and quick routes designed to take advantage of his size and physical running style. Marshall has routinely turned those short receptions into big gains, and that ability has made the Broncos' offense more dangerous because of the space that the spread formation creates.

With the Broncos reeling from a four-game losing streak, McDaniels turned to his top playmaker to end the slide, and Marshall responded by combing for 13 receptions for 180 yards and one score in the two Denver wins that followed. The production not only energized the Broncos' aerial attack, but helped opened up the field for the team's running game.

McDaniels spoke of having a plan to get the Broncos into the postseason when he took the job in January, and despite a rocky start with his most prolific player, it appears that Marshall is still a big part of his strategy.

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