Originally posted on NESN.com  |  Last updated 12/26/12

NEW ORLEANS - NOVEMBER 30: Quarterback Tom Brady #12 of the New England Patriots celebrates after Laurence Maroney scored a 2-yard rushing touchdown in the third quarter against the New Orleans Saints at Louisana Superdome on November 30, 2009 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images)
Tom Brady was ticked off after the Patriots’ win against the Jaguars last Sunday. As he should have been — it was less a game than a poorly executed practice, with all facets of the team playing with a general malaise. While recent studies have shown that an angry Brady is a terrific Brady for the Patriots, this kind of angry Brady is not. Brady should be praised for getting at his teammates when needed, but the fact that he had to start shouting again — after plenty of much-deserved criticism during the loss to the 49ers — is a bad sign. These last few weeks have mirrored the end of the Patriots’ recent seasons in the worst of ways, and the results are foreboding. The Patriots cannot afford to be sleepwalking this time of year, and that was exactly what they were doing against the Jaguars. Now, things weren’t quite as bad as they appeared last Sunday. Jacksonville had nothing to lose and played like it, and the Patriots were resting key players, especially on defense. But what is concerning about the Jaguars game is what else was missing — things like motivation, pride and focus. It doesn’t matter if the season is over or if the Triple-A Miami Marlins were the ones who suited up across from New England. The Patriots need to play like the Patriots every week. For the past few years, the Patriots have been playing like a double-digit win team, the kind that is excellent all year, makes the playoffs and can saunter into late-season matchups with the likes of the Jaguars and win on basic talent. But the Patriots’ goals are said to be much loftier — Super Bowl, let’s say, or at least not finking out against the Jets in an early round of the playoffs. To do that, the Patriots need to play their best football at the end of the regular season, with the year-long development of players starting to bear fruit and a superior mental toughness carrying the Patriots past playoff opponents who have just as much talent and skill. The Patriots have just one game left to remedy this problem, this Sunday against the Dolphins. While it seems like one game against a non-playoff team may not be enough to cause such weighty effects, Miami could actually be the perfect team to play at this time. First of all, please rest all the chatter about playoff seeding. The Patriots have historically failed to do great in the playoffs when they haven’t had the first-round bye, but this is a side point to the larger discussion. The main focus here is winning the Super Bowl, and while that would be helped by a first-round bye, it would be helped much more by this team playing well. So, the Patriots could help their seeding chances by beating the Dolphins this week and the commensurate teams croaking (Houston and Denver), but that should be a byproduct to the larger things the Patriots must accomplish. If the Patriots do what they need to do, they’ll win it all with or without a first-round bye. If they get the bye but fail to improve where they need to, they will lose. New England’s focus against the Dolphins should be in two main areas: momentum and mental toughness. The Patriots have to get the entire team to execute at a consistent level, making basic plays at an even pace throughout the game. The team doesn’t need to be torrid heading into the playoffs, but the Pats must be at least consistent and able to do the basics effectively. Building this momentum will also help New England regain its mental edge, where a renewed focus, taking care of each part of the game and seeing the effects of solid execution will prepare the players for the bigger, coming challenges. The Dolphins, as a pesky divisional foe, will provide a good test. They have plenty of pride to play for, and a history of knocking off the Patriots when all signs point to New England winning. They are one of the better non-playoff teams, and they know what to expect from the Patriots. If New England wants a testing ground to get the team revved up heading into the playoffs, this should be it. If the Patriots can put together a decent game where the players execute well, even without a full, healthy roster, that will set the tone for the team heading into the playoffs. The Patriots showed they have the ability to play with — and beat — the best teams out there, against Houston and San Francisco. But they’re awfully close to losing the edge that they’ll need in the tough moments of the playoffs after playing at half-strength against the Jaguars — and appearing to be completely lost mentally. If they can summon their best against a Miami team they don’t have to beat, chances are they’ll be able to bring it back on cue again when the next, better opponent comes along. The question this year, really, has been whether this Patriots team is like the 2011 version or the 2009 group. Last year, the Patriots built slowly throughout the season, developing the horrible secondary, getting the receiving corps into a groove and gradually bringing the team to a place where enough pieces could fire at the right point to secure victories. Aided by a helpful schedule and excellent execution when it matter, last year’s Patriots played beyond their skill. They won one more, then one more, then one more all the way to the Super Bowl. The 2009 Patriots, meanwhile, were stacked. They still had Randy Moss and Wes Welker at their best, and Brady coming off his lost season. The defense had big-play capability. But the team spent most of the season winning one and losing one, winning one and losing one. In NFL Films’ A Football Life, coach Bill Belichick can be heard bemoaning his team’s lack of mental focus. They played well sometimes, but they couldn’t be counted on to really bring it together consistently, and against good teams. In the regular-season finale, the 2009 Patriots lost horribly, and they lost Welker to a freak injury. They were then dismantled in the first round of the playoffs. This year’s team has the most talent since the record-breaking 2007 New England group. Rob Gronkowski should be back soon, and Brandon Lloyd is a huge producer as of late. The defense has been much improved down the stretch, with not only the ability to make big plays but also to turn in stops. But this is also the team that started the season winning one and losing one, and has had its trouble closing out games and keeping up the intensity. Whether this team has the mental focus to hold on against better teams and win out is very much in question, but one solid outing to end the season could go a long way. The team would at least know that, if needed, it could make it happen. Brady knows what Belichick knew and Patriots fans are finding out — this team is good, but it has to be better than good to reach its goals. The players must be yelled at, pushed and prodded until they start playing together, at their best, all the time. Early playoff exits and nasty Super Bowl losses are all too easy this time of year. The final path to winning it all starts now.
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