The New England Patriots had to travel all the way to London to win a road game.
The other four times they left home, they lost. On Saturday, they’ll board another airplane for a much shorter journey – down to Miami instead of across the Atlantic – for a game with major implications in the AFC East race.
Lose to the Dolphins on Sunday and the Patriots‘ division lead shrinks to a single game.
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“We’re not going to be able to get where we want to get if we don’t start winning on the road,” tight end Benjamin Watson said Thursday.
The road woes began on a warm late summer day in The Meadowlands and continued in the high altitude of Denver and indoors under the retractable roof of Indianapolis’ stadium. They reached a low point in a 38-17 loss to the Saints last Monday night inside the noisy Louisiana Superdome, the same building where the Patriots won their first Super Bowl title in 2002.
And that game in London’s Wembley Stadium? The crowd of 84,254 in the soccer venue didn’t boo either side very often. One team had to be designated as the home team and that was the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Patriots won 35-7.
“We won the one game in London, but it wasn’t the hostile environment like going to someone’s home turf,” Watson said. “That’s another point of emphasis, that’s getting a win on the road.”
The explanation for the huge difference between their records of 6-0 at home and 1-4 on the road could be as simple as the quality of the competition. Indianapolis and New Orleans are 11-0, Denver is 7-4. None of the Patriots‘ opponents at home is better than 6-5.
Coach Bill Belichick offered a more basic reason for why teams win on the road: “They play well.”
In his nine previous years as Patriots coach, the home-road differential during the regular season was marginal: 53-19 in Foxborough, 49-23 elsewhere. In their three championship seasons, the Patriots were 22-2 at home, going 8-0 twice. With home games left against Jacksonville and Carolina, they have a good chance to go unbeaten there again.
First they must deal with Miami – and the Patriots have won there each of the past two years.
But if they lose, they’ll not only lead the Dolphins by just one game but will fall behind them in the division record and conference record tiebreakers. Last year, Miami won the AFC East with a better conference mark, leaving New England out of the playoffs.
“I really haven’t been paying attention to the standings because the standings don’t play football,” Patriots linebacker Adalius Thomas said. “Playing football is going to take care of the standings, whatever the record is.”
Players’ memories are still fresh from the last time the teams met. New England won 27-17 at home on Nov. 8, scoring the go-ahead touchdown late in the third quarter on a crowd-pleasing 71-yard pass play from Tom Brady to Randy Moss.
Wes Welker also has some fond recollections of Miami.
“I played a few years there and was at home there,” he said. “It’s always nice to go back and see some old faces and (have) a little familiarity with the field.”
But last Monday night, Moss and Welker were held to a combined nine catches for 99 yards by the Saints, who double teamed both of them on many plays.
The Patriots hadn’t played the Saints in four years. They face the Dolphins twice each season.
“We are familiar with playing Miami, but it’s still a road game,” Watson said. “That’s something that we haven’t done very well.
“We’ve played some very good teams, teams that we thought we could’ve beaten, but they were better than us. They came out and played better than we did. The only thing you can say is just to execute. There’s no magic formula or anything like that. There’s no excuse we can give for not winning on the road, except that the teams that we’ve played have played better than we have.”
The Patriots were competitive against three of them.
Despite Brady’s worst offensive performance of the year, they lost a close 16-9 game to the New York Jets in Week 2. Three games later, the Broncos won the overtime coin flip and eked out a 20-17 victory. Four games after that, the Patriots led 31-14 in the fourth quarter but lost to the Colts 35-34 after Belichick’s much-questioned decision to go for it on fourth-and-2 at the Patriots 28-yard line with 2:08 left.
“It doesn’t matter where you’re located, you have to play well,” Thomas said. “It’s no secret.”