Forget an undefeated season, the New England Patriots right now are struggling to look like a playoff team.
The defending champions having dropped half of their games through the first four weeks – a far cry from the dominance many predicted for Tom Brady, Bill Belichick and Co this season.
The good news? There certainly won’t be any pressure of finishing 16-0 and subsequently 19-0 to complete a perfect season. We’re way past that point, with the team having been knocked down multiple times already and being reminded of their own mortality.
The bad news is that mortality is much more defined and to a greater extent than anyone could have expected.
It’s almost impossible to point the finger at Brady and the offence. The 40-year-old quarterback didn’t look sharp in the season-opening loss to Kansas City, but has since completed 73.1 per cent of his passes for an average of 377.3 yards through three games, while posting a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 10:0.
Basically, Brady is once again having an MVP-calibre season and yet New England have dropped two of their first three games at Gillette Stadium, which has normally been a fortress.
It’s no secret what’s plaguing them. Their defence, and especially their retooled secondary, has been downright terrible.
The Patriots’ offense ranks first in yards and second in points.
Defense ranks last in yards allowed and second to last in points allowed.
— Doug Kyed (@DougKyed) October 3, 2017
Matt Patricia’s unit ranks dead last in the league in total defence with 456.8 yards allowed per game and 31st in points surrendered with 32.0 per contest.
Pass rushing was an area of concern coming into the season and so far, there’s been little reason for optimism as the Patriots are tied for the fifth-fewest sacks in the league with eight. The lack of pressure on opposing quarterbacks has exacerbated the issues with the secondary, where miscommunication and blown coverages have resulted in big plays.
Cornerback Stephon Gilmore, who was handed a rich five-year, $65 million contract in the offseason, has been burned countless times and looks like a downgrade from the reliable Logan Ryan, now in Tennessee.
Gilmore has flashed in brief moments in his new digs, but too often he’s made mental mistakes, such as allowing Tyreek Hill to run past him for a 75-yard touchdown in Week 1 and committing an illegal hands to the face penalty to wipe out a third-down sack on Carolina’s final possession, eventually leading to Graham Gano’s game-winning field goal.
Opposite cornerback Malcolm Butler has been shaky as well, while safety Devin McCourty, normally one of the best at his position, has uncharacteristically been out of place at times. All of that has resulted in the Patriots defence resembling Swiss cheese and in-turn placing far too much responsibility on the shoulders of Brady to score on nearly every possession.
— Carolina Panthers (@Panthers) October 1, 2017
Even if it wasn’t for the talent New England possess on that side of the ball, this would still be embarrassing because Belichick is (rightly) considered a defensive mastermind.
This is a coach who traded his best pass-rusher in Chandler Jones before the start of last season and then shipped out uber-talented linebacker Jamie Collins after seven games, only for the defence to improve, allow the fewest points in the league and be part of a Super Bowl victory.
It’s entirely possible Belichick pulls off another magic trick with this unit and whips them into shape before the end of the season, but the margin for error has exponentially dropped.
Even with Brady functioning like he has, the Patriots won’t be infallible in the postseason, especially if they’re without home-field advantage, which is now a much more difficult proposition.
But as tempting as it may be to pour dirt on a dynasty whose decline is long overdue, no one should be burying New England just yet. It was only three years ago when the Patriots started a disappointing 2-2, only to win 13 of their next 15 games and hoist a fourth Super Bowl.
Circumstances are different this time around, but the mindset remains: Belichick wants to play his best football in November and December, not in the first month of the season.
There’s time to turn it around and if anyone should be given the benefit of the doubt, it’s Belichick, Brady and the Patriots.