Inconsistent Patriots still work in progress at midpoint
New England Patriots safety Steve Gregory, right, picks up a blocked field goal attempt by the Miami Dolphins in the fourth quarter of an NFL football game Sunday, Oct. 27, 2013, in Foxborough, Mass., as New England Patriots' Devin McCourty (32) runs behind. The Patriots won 27-17. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)
New England Patriots tackle Sebastian Vollmer is tended after an injury in the second quarter of an NFL football game against the Miami Dolphins on Sunday, Oct. 27, 2013, in Foxborough, Mass. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)
New England Patriots defensive back Logan Ryan, left, strips the ball from Miami Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill (17) in the second half of an NFL football game on Sunday, Oct. 27, 2013, in Foxborough, Mass. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – The New England Patriots’ season is half over.
Sometimes it seems as if it’s still training camp.
Young receivers are getting in sync with Tom Brady. Undrafted rookies are starting on the defensive line.
And a once-dominant team is searching for consistency.
Somehow, they’re 6-2 and leading the AFC East by two games.
“We’re trying,” Brady said. “There are a lot of things we can do better.”
That message was received at halftime of Sunday’s 27-17 win over the Miami Dolphins, the latest in a season-long line of mediocre opponents.
The Patriots went into the locker room trailing 17-3 after gaining just 59 yards. Brady was intercepted on his first pass, threw for just 25 yards and had a miserable 38.0 passer rating in the first two quarters.
“The first half was brutal,” tight end Rob Gronkowski said.
But they scored touchdowns on two of their first three possessions in the third quarter.
And the Dolphins missed a field-goal attempt when the ball hit the right upright, then lost a fumble that led to the Patriots second touchdown that tied the game 17-17.
It was 20-17 when substitute cornerback Marquice Cole, playing because of a groin injury to Kyle Arrington, intercepted a pass tipped by safety Devin McCourty and managed to get both feet inbounds.
That set up an 82-yard drive with Stevan Ridley running the last 3 for the final points of the game midway through the fourth quarter.
But there is plenty of room for improvement on a team trying to fill holes.
Rookie wide receivers Kenbrell Thompkins and Aaron Dobson are playing positions handled last season by Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd, who combined for 192 catches.
Free agents Chris Jones and Joe Vellano are filling in at defensive tackle for injured Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly. Star linebacker Jerod Mayo is on season-ending injured reserve.
Add starting right tackle Sebastian Vollmer to the list of sidelined players. He didn’t return after injuring his right leg in the second quarter.
Brady appeared to have a swollen right hand in pictures shown on television and threw only eight passes in the first half, nearly all of them short. But his hand “is perfect,” he said. “I’ll be out there next week. You don’t have to worry about that.”
He has plenty of time to improve on the worst statistical year of his career.
“It’s still early in the season,” Cole said yesterday. “We just want to hit our stride at the right time. As the year gets older and older then you want to get better and better. And I believe we’re doing that each week, getting better and better.”
That may be because the opposition doesn’t.
Like the Pittsburgh Steelers.
They visit Gillette Stadium on Sunday with a 2-5 record, tied for the second worst in the AFC.
The Patriots have the NFL’s best home regular-season record, 77-15, since they moved there in 2002.
This season, they’ve played just two teams who currently have winning records, losing to the Cincinnati Bengals 13-6 and beating the New Orleans Saints 30-27 on a touchdown pass with five seconds left. Only two of their six wins have been by more than seven points.
So, with the season already half over, what is the identity of the Patriots?
“I don’t know,” left guard Logan Mankins said. “Once we get 60 minutes of good football then I think we’ll be where we want to be.”
They may not have to be that consistent, considering the rest of the schedule.
The Patriots have a bye week after facing the Steelers then play two teams, the Carolina Panthers and Denver Broncos, who now have winning records. But each of their last five opponents is under .500.
Still, any more injuries to starters could be costly with backups adjusting to playing with regulars.
“The defense is the defense,” Cole said. “Some guys have certain tools that they’re better at than other players, but the defense isn’t going to change. So if you learn the defense and if your number’s called, you’ve got to step up in whatever that role may be.”
Meanwhile, the Patriots are in good shape to win the weak AFC East for the 10th time in 11 years.
“We’re at a decent place in our division,” Brady said. “Would we love to be 8-0? Sure. So would every other team in the NFL. We’re 6-2. We’re fighting through it.”