Eric McHugh: Pats' failing passing game a worrying sign

Eric McHugh

At least twice recently in his weekly interviews on WEEI, Tom Brady has referenced the Colts' high-flying offense of a few years ago.

Sure, those Indianapolis teams had Edgerrin James in the backfield to complement Peyton Manning. But Brady said that, in his mind, the Colts were doing the opposing defense a favor whenever they took the ball out of Manning's hands and gave it to James.

So we'll assume that Brady played Sunday’s game against the Jets under mild protest.

Not that the franchise quarterback has anything against his second-year running back. Or a running game in general. Heck, Brady wouldn't have won that third Super Bowl ring if Corey Dillon hadn't trucked all those defenders in 2004.

But this is 2007, the Patriots have maybe the most prolific passing game ever, and so there was nothing really comforting about seeing them morph into a sluggish running team in a dreary 20-10 win over the Jets. The Patriots ran 35 times and threw 27 times. Compare that to the three previous games in which they threw it on almost 75 percent of their snaps.

Give credit to Maroney for getting the media jackals off his back with a solid game - 26 carries for 104 yards and a touchdown. Credit him also for running hard between the tackles - not always his greatest asset.

"You have to go downhill," Maroney said. "I knew I had to keep my feet underneath me and not make wide cuts. I knew it was going to be more of a power, downhill-type game."

That was all well and good against the Jets, and, yes, it is a good sign that the Patriots can win a game when Brady looks oddly mortal. But this must be the exception, not the rule. Even in bad weather - and there was plenty of it yesterday - the Patriots have to throw to win against good competition. OK, the running game was strong against the Jets, but what did it really accomplish? The Pats scored only one offensive TD - they had 58 coming into the game - and that one capped a 3-yard drive.

"It wasn't the air show that everybody has been accustomed to seeing," receiver Jabar Gaffney acknowledged.

No kidding.

Brady was 14 of 27 for 140 yards. He failed to throw a TD for the first time this season, and his 51.5 passer rating was the sixth-lowest of his career.

Was it the weather? Sure, that played a role. As Gaffney noted, "It was pretty rough out there." And Brady said, "There are a lot of things you don't call because if you're playing them (against no defense at all) you (still) don't complete them" because of the conditions.

Still, this is a guy who hit on 32 passes in the "Snow Bowl" playoff win over the Raiders, and it was mildly surprising to see him take such a back seat to the ground game, especially because the weather wasn't quite the "Storm of the Century" that many had been expecting.

"After everything that was said all week, you thought you'd be out there in 10 feet of snow," left guard Logan Mankins said. "But it was a lot nicer than predicted."

OK, he's a bearded, bare-sleeved tough guy on the offensive line, so he probably loves this stuff. Quarterbacks aren't so fond of the freezing rain and wind, which gusted up to 27 miles per hour, according to the official score sheet.

Still, you got the idea that the decision to pound Maroney wasn't all about making concessions to the weather. The Patriots rushed for 134 yards against the Jets in Week 1 with Maroney getting the ball on five of their first six plays, so there was definitely something inviting about New York's 30th-ranked run defense.

"The players, we're in the dark," Mankins said about anticipating game plans. "We just practice what they tell us to practice, and in the game we just run what they tell us to run. But sometimes we have a feeling from watching film on our own what we're going to do. This week we thought we would run it more."

Maybe it was the for the best after all because when Brady did put it up he had precious little success. The passing game seemed out of sorts all day - starting from the very first drive when Brady and Randy Moss (five catches for 79 yards) were not on the same page on a third-down pass. Moss continued down the right sideline when Brady threw short. Had rookie corner Darrelle Revis been able to react sooner, he could have had an easy INT for a score.

Even though the Pats were shorthanded at tight end - Benjamin Watson (ankle) sat out and Kyle Brady (ankle) got dinged up early and did not return – the Patriots kept going with their big packages. That's why recently signed Stephen Spach got 33 snaps, and tackle Wesley Britt, who subbed in on two-TE sets, was on the field for 12 plays.

Would you rather see Spach, Britt, Maroney and fullback Heath Evans on the field or Kevin Faulk and four receivers? Yeah, we thought so.

The Patriots had trouble with Jets blitzes, they punted six times, burned a timeout coming out of a TV timeout to start the second quarter and seemed somewhat flustered by the Jets' sub packages.

Perfect example of how the day went: After the Jets had shaved the lead to 17-10 in the fourth quarter, Brady hit Wes Welker for 16 yards on third down and Moss for a 46-yard gain on a deep throw. The Pats looked to be going in for the kill, but ex-Patriot Hank Poteat broke up a pass in the end zone (Moss was the target) and Brady was sacked on third down.

When Stephen Gostkowski trotted in for a clinching field goal, it almost felt like a win for the Jets - even though it obviously wasn't.

"We'll probably have those conditions again," Brady said. "... I think (the weather) is probably the way it's going to be next week, the week after, the week after ..."

If so, let's hope they figure out a way to air it out more.

"I wish we played in a dome every week," Brady said.

Take heart. It'll be beautiful in Glendale, Ariz. - site of Super Bowl XLII.

A little less Maroney and a whole lot more Brady is the ticket to getting there.

The Patriot Ledger