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Senior NFL Columnist

If Patriots keep this up, they will be one and done in playoffs

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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Terrible. Horrible. Out-competed.

Those are not words normally used to describe a Super Bowl contender, especially not in late December, but those were the words flowing from the mouths of New England Patriots players Sunday after their lackluster 23-16 victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars.

They tore into themselves, and I'm sure coach Bill Belichick gave it to them even worse than that.

Super Bowl? If they don't get it together, they might be one and done in the playoffs -- even with Tom Brady at quarterback.

That thought seemed unimaginable two weeks ago when the Patriots blew out the Houston Texans to stake a claim as the NFL's best team, but then they lost at home last week to San Francisco and then had to hold on for dear life Sunday to beat a Jacksonville team that is now 2-13 and may be the league's worst team.

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"We were lucky to win," Patriots quarterback Tom Brady said. "We played pretty terrible out there. It was just a poor effort overall."

And now the Patriots have to answer this question: How good are they? Or was this just a comedown after that tough game last week against the 49ers?

The Patriots started slowly, seemed to be caught off guard by the Jaguars' up-tempo offense early, and never really got into a groove on either side of the ball. They did take it away three times, but it took two late interceptions by Patrick Chung, the last on the final play in the end zone, to secure the victory.

Critics will say this defense isn't good enough. They will show how the 49ers carved that unit up last week and then the Jaguars rolled up 202 yards in the first quarter and finished with 438 yards in this one. Not bad for an offense that was ranked last in the NFL in scoring offense coming into the game.

Patriots corner Aqib Talib was limited by a hip injury and Alfonzo Dennard, the other starting cornerback, was out. But that shouldn't have been reason enough to have Chad Henne carve them up for 348 yards.

I asked Patriots defensive tackle Vince Wilfork about those who will say the defense isn't good enough to win a title.

"I never listen to what people say about this team," Wilfork said. "People have been wrong a lot about this team. That's one thing we do a real good job of around here, paying attention to what we have to do and not what people are saying about this team. It's always people saying how we are or how we suck."

They sure don't suck, and they remain a major player in the AFC, mainly because of Brady and the offense.

New England had big problems on defense early this season, juggled the roster and the starters and seemed to be settling in on that side of the ball until the past two weeks. Now the questions are back.

Can they rush the passer well enough?

Is that young secondary talented enough?

Brady is seemingly always there to bail them out, but as Sunday showed, when the offense isn't clicking this team is vulnerable. And this was a day when the top-scoring offense in the NFL looked nothing like it. The Jaguars came into the game ranked 31st in total defense and 29th in scoring defense. Their 15 sacks coming into the game were an NFL low.

That looked like a formula for Brady to carve them to shreds. But he was picked off twice in the first quarter and at one point had three completions and two picks.

Jacksonville had three sacks and hit Brady several other times, almost making him look jumpy at times in the pocket.

"We don't design plays for him to get hit," Belichick said. "We try to protect the quarterback. That's part of football. Guys get hit."

When that guy gets hit, you have problems -- especially against that defensive front.

There is no doubt the Patriots are missing tight end Rob Gronkowski, who could be back next week and will be back for the playoffs. They also lack speed down the field, which showed up against the Jaguars. That shows how special Brady is as a quarterback.

"It just wasn't a very good performance," Brady said.

But don't go burying the Patriots. As long as Belichick and Brady are there, they will always be a factor come playoff time. But the past two weeks have taught us that they aren't quite the team we thought they might be.

Can they get there? Of course. But it will take some work.

"I just think when we play together and play with a lot of confidence, we're a pretty good football team," Wilfork said. "That's what I do know."

That sure sounds more like the Patriots in December than horrible and terrible, their self-scouting from this game. They were almost acting as if they lost this one, their heads down as they trudged to the buses and Belichick mumbling his way through his news conference like he does after losses.

When is a win a loss? When you're the New England Patriots, a 14-point favorite, and you have to hold on for dear life. There's no other way to describe it.


Pete Prisco has covered the NFL for three decades, including working as a beat reporter in Jacksonville for the Jaguars. He hosted his own radio show for seven years, and is the self-anointed star of CBS Sports' show, Eye on Football. When he's not watching game tape, you can find Pete on Twitter or dreaming of an Arizona State national title in football.
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