By: Ian Logue/PatsFans.com
November 21, 2002

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FOXBORO, MA --Jim Mora's voice will forever be played on sports talk radio, his face shown on television, and his words forever written when talking about teams who should forget about the postseason and figure out what direction they're heading in.

That's where New England is right now with the Minnesota Vikings heading into Foxboro this weekend.

The Patriots have had their ups and downs this year. They dropped four in a row after their 3-0 start, and just when they thought they had it all figured out after beating the Buffalo Bills 38-7 and rallying from 21-down to beat the Chicago Bears, they went to Oakland and failed to score an offensive touchdown en-route to a 27-20 loss that was far worse than what the score reflected.

So now the question is, with just six games left to decide the outcome of their season, where will they be when it's over?

First it was their defense that couldn't stop the run and were getting run over on what for a five game stretch was a weekly basis. Now it's been their inconsistency on offense which has them struggling to convert on third down and the inability to sustain a drive.

That being said all eyes not just this weekend but for the rest of the season will likely be on offensive coordinator Charlie Weis who is beginning to receive a fair amount of criticism for his inconsistent play-calling recently. After Kevin Faulk scored two touchdowns and had a 109-yard receiving performance one week earlier, he touched the ball just once in their loss to the Raiders which was an 86-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. There was also no inclusion of rookie tight end Daniel Graham who after recovering from a shoulder injury had started to come on strong. The innovation that made New England so unpredictable last season has been sorely lacking so far this year, with the play-action passes that had been so effective last season and earlier in the year now non-existent.

There's no question that there are no guaranteed plays that will work against every defense, and there's no question it isn't always easy to get the ball to one particular player. The offense is obviously designed for Tom Brady to get the ball to whoever is open, and head coach Bill Belichick told reporters on Thursday that Brady doesn't go out on the field looking for a particular player on every play because it obviously comes down to what type of defense he's facing.

"It's just hard to run a passing game like that because teams don't play the same coverages every down," said Belichick on Thursday. "So the quarterback needs to throw where the coverage isn't rather than where is instead of trying to force balls into coverage."

"That means that there are opportunities for somebody else and we have to take advantage of those opportunities, rather than I think continuing to try to force the ball into a spot where it is really not there."

"I think Tom definitely understands coverages, and where the ball needs to go, and different coverages based on the pattern that we have, what the read progression is. I think that's a strength of his, not a weakness."

Where the ball hasn't been going recently is to rookie receiver Deion Branch who through the first five games of the season caught 32 passes for 370-yards and two touchdowns. Over the last five games he's caught just nine balls for 58-yards and no touchdowns, and actually went without a reception during two of those games.

Has Branch hit a "rookie wall"?

"They all hit the wall," said Belichick. "There's no doubt. It's just a question of pushing through it."

"I think that's definitely true in the National Football League, all rookies hit a wall. They find a way to keep going and push through it, but it's tough. The season is twice as long, and instead of being the best guy on the team, you're going up against guys every week that are as good, probably better than you are, relative to what the competition was in college."

The question now is can Branch as well along with the rest of the Patriots offense push through the wall they hit last Sunday night in Oakland. Facing an uphill battle with just six games left on the schedule they can't afford to make any more mistakes. To make matters worse when the game ends on Sunday they'll have realistically one day to prepare for Detroit as they'll have Monday, their normal day off on Tuesday, and then will likely travel on Wednesday for their Thanksgiving game on Thursday against the Lions.

Belichick compared their situation to an exam they need to cram for.

"I think it's an exam you've got to cram for," said Belichick. "We're not going to take anything away from the Minnesota game. We're putting everything we've got into the Minnesota game, and when the game's over we're going straight through, the exam is an example."

But Sunday's game against Minnesota is a test in itself, and with just six games left in their 2002 season, it's also one they can't afford to fail.

LIGHT'S JUST FINE

Offensive lineman Matt Light has found himself receiving criticism for his play as of late after some of the pressure Brady received Sunday night came from his side of the line. Belichick disagreed. "I wouldn't agree with that," said Belichick. "I don't think so. There was some pressure there last year, not getting into numbers and all of that. He's definitely improved. I don't think there is any question about that."

LB WELLS RETIRES, WOMACK ON IR

The team announced on Thursday that linebacker Dean Wells who just joined the team on Wednesday decided to retire. Meanwhile runningback Antoine Womack who was selected in the seventh round with one of the team's 7th round draft choices was placed on injured reserve. Womack had begun the season on the team's physically unable to perform list, and the Patriots had until Thursday to decide whether to add him to the active roster, release him, or place him on IR….. Ty Law (leg) was added to the injury report on Thursday and is listed as "Probable".


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