Patriots just good enough in AFC even with offense now lagging, too | NFL

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The Chargers got their holidays mixed up: Christmas is the time for gifts, not Halloween. Yet there the visitors were wrapping up a present of a victory to the Patriots in Foxborough on Sunday. It’s not all that obvious that the defending Super Bowl champs would have won without it.

Also not obvious: That it even matters how the Patriots won. They won, again.

New England is 6-2. Going into its bye week, no AFC team will have a better record. (The Steelers and Chiefs, both 5-2, play in primetime this weekend.) No AFC team will have proven itself to be better, more dangerous, more scary … or, most important, less flawed.

MORE: Patriots-Chargers box score

The Patriots are flawed, and what was unnerving for their followers after Sunday’s 21-13 win was the offense, more so this week than the defense. Granted, the defense has been their certifiable weak spot, and it unveiled itself again on Melvin Gordon’s 87-yard touchdown run early. It’s something a championship contender shouldn’t just give up, at home, to a back who was questionable with numerous ailments all week.

Making matters more worrisome was the absence of Dont’a Hightower for the rest of the season, which became official last week.

But the defense kept things in control for the second straight week, including the fog-shrouded win over the Falcons. Good thing, because the offense was the unit that raised red flags against the Chargers, and that was what put the game in doubt until Philip Rivers’ final throw (an interception at the goal line on the last play).

Count on less-informed onlookers to point with a smirk at the 414 yards of offense and Tom Brady’s 333 yards passing, then act as if one touchdown, four field goals, two field-goal misses and one score in four red-zone trips are business as usual in New England.

Brady didn’t sugarcoat it.

“That’s a good word for it,” he said afterward when asked why the offense was a “struggle.” “We didn’t finish them off. We have to do a better job with that. I know I’ve said that about 100 times this season.”

It’s been a valid point during their last four games — all wins. The defense that was such a sieve gave up 17 points or less in each of those wins. The offense, though, hasn’t scored more than 24.

The Patriots have caught the usual number of breaks (the overturned touchdown by the Jets, the inexplicable Falcons jet sweep from the 1-yard line, Travis Benjamin’s ill-fated punt return Sunday are just a few examples). They have capitalized on the bare minimum of them, and somehow that has been good enough.

“We’re not scoring as many points as we’re capable of scoring,” Brady added. “I wish there was a simple answer for it … We have more opportunity out there. We know it.”

Yet they still are 6-2.

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For now, getting spanked by the Chiefs in the season opener is problematic in that it’s the tiebreaker for hosting a playoff game … if it comes to that. Other than that, at the halfway point of the season, it’s even less clear whether that game indicates what kind of team the Patriots truly are.

They can fall on their faces against the best — but the best haven’t managed to separate themselves since then. Their defense is soft in spots and, now, shorthanded without Hightower, but it has figured it out long enough to get the job done.

And the offense is underperforming in ways nobody anticipated. Yet, as they did Sunday, the Patriots are getting away with it.



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