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New England Patriots' three biggest problems; Week 8 X-factors

The standard for the New England Patriots is impossibly high.

That's just the way it is when Tom Brady's your quarterback and Bill Belichick's your coach.

The preface is necessary because, through seven games of the 12th season of the Brady/Belichick era, it's clear that New England has issues, some more fixable than others. The Patriots are 4-3 now, in large part because of an inability to close games, and things could be worse if Willis McGahee and/or Stephen Hill did a better job hanging on to the ball in the fourth quarter.

Looking at this group on paper back in August, some folks thought 16-0 was possible. Then, the games started.

And while Brady himself has become a target for some, it's clear to those with a trained eye the problems reside in places other than under center.

"He's a damn good player," one NFC personnel executive said. "What's happened with him is the O-line is suspect, there's no consistent run game. And there's no one to run the deep routes. They've got the tight ends and Wes (Welker). So you can't stretch the defense, and that leads to pressure, and for any quarterback, that's not good."

A second NFC exec said, "I don't think (Brady) has slipped at all." An AFC personnel exec mirrored his counterpart in adding, "I wouldn't say he's slipped at all."

So, where's the problem? According to these guys, there are three primary ones: The team's secondary, the pass rush and the offensive line.

As the second NFC exec said, "The issue starts at corner."

New England tried to play more man-to-man in 2011; that failed miserably, and the corner situation hasn't changed appreciably since. The Patriots' best man cover guy is Kyle Arrington in a secondary built to play tough and, more poignantly, play zone.

"The pass game in general is very problematic for them," the AFC executive said. "They're getting no pass rush in some of these situations, and with the matchup situation and concerns in coverage, they've been exposed on the back end. They're better against the run than they were last year, but the liability remains there. You block them up -- the Jets went max-protect -- and the Patriots can't stop you."

Rookie defensive end Chandler Jones arrived to much fanfare, and has come through with five sacks in his first seven games. Even so, the pass rush still hasn't consistently applied enough pressure to cover for a lackluster secondary.

"The game has changed, you're in the nickel package a lot, and it's tough just to find two corners," the first NFC exec said. "If you're not getting pressure up front, it's even harder."

On offense, the second NFC exec flatly said, "It looks like they miss Brian Waters." The line hasn't been the problem some feared it would be in August, but it still has Brady seeing "ghosts" -- rushers that aren't there -- at times. The running game looks better on the surface, but has feasted mostly on defenses geared back for Brady or thrown off by a breakneck pace, and hasn't proven it can produce in have-to-have-it situations.

It's important to remember that the Patriots still rank first in the NFL in total offense. But that only makes the late-game stall-outs more perplexing. I asked Brady last week if it might be that, at this point, the offense lacks an identity, something to fall back on in crunch time.

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"You're searching for ways to score points every week, and whatever you have to do to do that, that's what you fall back on," he told me. "It's gonna change week-to-week. You say, 'OK, this is what we need to do to win in Week 1,' and if you win, it's great. And if you lose, it's not so good, and you say, 'We gotta change that, that didn't work.' If you win, you say, 'OK, great, we have to do more of those things.' And hopefully by the 16th week of the year, you're at a point where you say, 'We've tried all these things and we've settled into what we do well.' "

For a group with plenty of returnees from a Super Bowl team, it's been the few changes that have made all the difference. The losses of Waters and Matt Light, and the spotty health of country-tough All-Pro Logan Mankins have been felt on the offensive line. And the transition at offensive coordinator from Bill O'Brien, whom scouts say liked to play an inside-out game, to Josh McDaniels, who's more comfortable playing outside-in, hasn't been entirely smooth.

Trying to turn Brandon Lloyd into a deep threat hasn't worked to this point. As the first NFC exec said, "He's not a RAC (run after catch) guy, not a top-end speed guy, and you don't worry about him running by you; if he's your third guy, you've got a receiving core." The AFC exec called Lloyd "an average No. 2 receiver." But the real problem here might just be something that, the Patriots would hope, naturally works itself out.

"I just don't think those two tight ends are healthy," the AFC exec said. "Those guys are the matchup guys. Outside the numbers, no one poses a real matchup threat. The biggest problem they pose is the tight ends and Welker; it's a middle-of-the-field offense. Once those guys are healthy again, they'll be good. They're moving the ball. I just think the tight ends need to be healthy."

Now, for some perspective. The Patriots are 4-3. Last year, they were 5-3 at the midway point, and didn't lose again until the Super Bowl. The way the schedule sets up, it's not all that difficult to envision New England going into a Monday night showdown with the Houston Texans in December at 9-3.

All of this, of course, isn't according to plan. But maybe Brady said it best in our conversation: "I mean, everyone thinks they have an idea of what they are at the start of the year. But sometimes you have to adjust to your personnel. The teams you're playing are different. You're searching for a way."

On offense, the Patriots still need find their way. On defense, they'll have to patch it together, like they did last year, with personnel problems that aren't going away.

When you add it all up, the Pats still figure to be there in January. How they grow now will decide what happens when they get there.

Players on the spot

Dallas Cowboys ILB Dan Connor: Losing Sean Lee creates an all-hands-on-deck situation for Dallas, starting on Sunday against the rival New York Giants. Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan has called Lee the defense's "brain." Bruce Carter takes over the calls and checks. Connor gets the snaps. One Cowboys official called Connor a "smart player. Not the same athlete, or as instinctive, but physical and tough. Sean Lee is rare, and hard to replace with one guy." Still, Connor will be vital.

New York Jets LT D'Brickashaw Ferguson: Last week, the Jets prioritized keeping Mark Sanchez's jersey clean, going max-protect often. Until the end, when a sack closed the game, they handled the Patriots fine. This Sunday's test is stiffer for Ferguson, facing turbo-charged Miami Dolphins rusher Cameron Wake. The blueprint to beat Sanchez has always been to get licks on him early. A division rival like Miami knows that well.

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Seattle Seahawks CB Richard Sherman: Seattle's received attention for the size of its corners, but the guys running the team know there's a trade-off in quickness. If you can get off the line, you can test them, and Calvin Johnson isn't bad at shedding defenders. Sherman has dubbed himself "Optimus Prime" on Twitter this week, since he's covering Megatron. If he's equal to the task, the Detroit Lions could struggle with Seattle's D.

Pittsburgh Steelers ILB Lawrence Timmons: The sixth-year foundation block was integral to Pittsburgh's ability to slam the brakes on Mike Vick and the Philadelphia Eagles' offense three weeks ago. And if the Steelers are going to contain Robert Griffin III, Timmons is likely to play a major role as, perhaps, the only guy in that front seven who can run with the rookie dynamo.

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Arizona Cardinals offensive line coach Russ Grimm: It's easy to blame the quarterbacks for Arizona's three-game losing streak -- and the deficiency at that position is glaring -- but it's also not hard to realize how tough those guys have had it. The Cardinals have yielded a staggering 29 sacks over the last four weeks. Yes, they're undermanned. But with the San Francisco 49ers up next, they have to find a way to stick a Band-Aid on the issue.

San Diego Chargers head coach Norv Turner: I'm told the league hasn't found much to incriminate the Bolts in the stickum investigation. But after what happened 10 days ago, that'll hardly allow Turner to escape criticism. The Chargers are still in first place, but Denver's schedule is about to soften up, and the Bolts badly need a bounceback. If they fail to deliver that in Cleveland on Sunday, look out.

Something to spot on Thursday night

BENGALS AT EAGLES
Thursday, Dec. 13, 8 p.m. ET
Watch on NFL Network and NFL.com/LIVE


Thursday Night Football Xtra
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Play TNF Challenge
Pick the game score and the players from each matchup you think will score the most fantasy points. Compete with friends and experts. Win a trip to the Pro Bowl.

The Minnesota Vikings' running game: Adrian Peterson exploded for 153 yards and a touchdown in last week's win over the Cardinals and seems to be rounding into shape, having exceeded 4.5 yards per carry in each of the last four weeks. The going gets a bit tougher on Thursday Night Football (8:20 p.m. ET), with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' third-ranked run defense coming to the Metrodome. And it'll give us all a good gauge for where Peterson is at midseason.

Spot check

The Detroit Lions' defensive line: Detroit ranks 16th in the NFL against the run, but yielded 171 yards on the ground last week against the Bears. For a group loaded with talented, and pedigree, the defensive front has to do better than that in a big division game.

This week, they'll get a chance to make up for it, when they host Marshawn Lynch and the Seattle Seahawks.

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer.

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