Alan Branch says Patriots will lose in the playoffs if they don't improve

Alan Branch is one of many who knows the Patriots need to get their act together if they want to win a fifth Super Bowl title.

The defensive tackle was asked if he's keying in on a possible opponent for next week's divisional round match up at Gillette Stadium. His response is one that you'd expect from a Patriot.

"If we don't play good ball, it doesn't matter."

He continued, per Mike Reiss of ESPN Boston:

"You take the time to focus on yourself and go out there and just try to figure out what your weaknesses are, make those weaknesses not as weak and become a better player," Branch said.

After going 10-0 to begin the year, the Patriots finished by going 2-4 with losses to Denver, Philadelphia, New York and Miami. All four were winnable games. Granted, injuries have really hit the Patriots hard, and the fact that they were in any of these games till the end was great to see.

What's more, it was painfully obvious that the Patriots were playing the last two games with health in mind. I'm not the best at X's and O's, but it was pretty obvious that New England really limited their playbook, especially in Miami. Most of their first half plays were run plays with Steven Jackson and Brandon Bolden. It was obvious they were trying to protect Tom Brady from getting hurt, even though he played just about the whole game.

Backing in to the playoffs when you have a bye week isn't always the end of the world, though. Last season, the Patriots went 3-2 in their last five games before the postseason. The Seattle Seahawks, their Super Bowl XLIX counterpart last year, went 2-2 before reaching the title game for the second year in a row. With a handful of key players expected back for next week's game, the team should look much better than it has in recent weeks.

One of the things they can do to improve is stop giving up big plays, which have really burned them during this porous stretch.

Per Jimmy Toscana of Comcast Sportsnet New England, the Patriots allowed 11 plays of 15-plus yards against Miami. Seven of those plays went for 22 yards or more.

In both of Miami's touchdown drives, they benefited from two plays of 15-plus yards. In the second quarter, Ryan Tannehill hit Greg Jennings down the sidelines for a big 31-yard gain as the final minute of the first half ticked down. Two plays later, Tannehill found DeVante Parker in the end zone from 15 yards out, as Parker slipped behind Leonard Johnson and made the catch before Devin McCourty could get to him.

In the fourth quarter with the game tied, it took just two plays for the Dolphins to go from their 30-yard line to the Patriots six-yard line.

Tannehill hit Jarvis Landry on a short pass that Landry turned into an 18-yard gain. And then came the dagger. Despite solid coverage from Logan Ryan, Tannehill hit Parker for his longest completion of the game, 46 yards down the sideline. Ryan contested the pass and even got a hand on the ball before it deflected into Parker's hands for the big gain. McCourty was nearby to push him out of bounds, but not before the damage was done.

Two plays later, the Dolphins were celebrating a two-yard touchdown pass to Jordan Cameron that gave them a lead they wouldn't lose.

And the Dolphins, who came into Sunday's game ranked 30th in third down conversions with a 29.3—percent rate, didn't have nearly the amount of trouble they should have had, converting on 8-of-17 attempts, including some big ones.

Third-and-12 from the Patriots 50-yard line in the first quarter? Tannehill hits Parker for 14 yards.

Same drive, third-and-10 from the Patriots 36-yard line? Tannehill hits Kenny Stills for 11 yards.

The 31-yarder to Jennings that led to a touchdown in the second quarter came on 3rd-and-8, and in the third quarter Tannehill hit Parker on 3rd-and-8 for 29 yards.

And the icing on the cake came on Miami's final scoring drive of the game, when on 3rd-and-11 from New England's 46-yard line, Tannehill scrambled for 19 yards, prolonging the drive and putting the Dolphins in field goal position. They'd eventually march down to the Patriots goal line before kicking a field goal to put the game out of reach with under two minutes to go.

Seeing as the Patriots have an extra week to right the ship and recover further from injuries, preventing big plays should be a big focal point in the practices leading up to whomever they play next Saturday. It has to be, otherwise the Patriots are going to be watching the Super Bowl from home.

Follow me on Twitter - @JesseGaunce

For more of my articles, click here.