The New England Patriots barely resemble the team some thought might go 16-0.
Were they ever that good in the first place?
A last-second loss to the Carolina Panthers on Sunday revealed that what appeared to be flukes during the first month are legitimate and troublesome flaws, deficiencies that could be problematic all season. An unreliable secondary. An undisciplined defense.
Even a future Hall of Fame quarterback who appears to be too reliant on a couple of favorite targets.
“Collectively, as a whole team, we’ve all just got to do a better job,” coach Bill Belichick said.
Yes, the NFL is wondrously quirky, and no team is immune — as Sunday’s games showed. The Houston Texans put up 57 points, more than they managed in their first three games combined. The Los Angeles Rams lead the league in scoring. The Buffalo Bills beat the Atlanta Falcons to take sole possession of first place in the AFC East.
But Belichick and Brady have always managed to keep the Patriots above the fray, especially at home. Until now.
The 33-30 loss to the Panthers, on Graham Gano’s 48-yard field goal as time expired, is New England’s second loss at Gillette Stadium this year. The Patriots needed a late rally to avoid a third loss in Foxborough last week against Houston.
The most glaring problem is the defense. New England has have given up 300 passing yards to each quarterback its faced in the first four games, and the New Orleans Saints are the only team the Patriots have held below 30 points.
But more than the stats, it’s the uncharacteristic sloppiness with which the Patriots are playing. Time and again they had the Panthers in third-and-long situations, and time and again they wound up giving up a fresh set of downs.
Take the game-winning drive.
After Brady pulled the Patriots within a touchdown, the defense forced a three-and-out. Brady led another scoring drive to tie the game 30-30, and it appeared as if the momentum had swung solidly in New England’s favor. Sure enough, the Panthers were looking at another three-and-out when Deatrich Wise sacked quarterback Cam Newton.
But corner Stephon Gilmore was called for illegal use of hands, giving Carolina a fresh set of downs. Four plays later, the Patriots again stopped the Panthers short on third-and-3 only to have safety Patrick Chung whistled for holding.
Three plays later, Gano was kicking the Patriots when they were already down.
“I’m getting better at some things, but I’m still learning,” said Gilmore, in his first year with the Patriots after spending the last five seasons in Buffalo. “I’ve got to do better.”
Gilmore was the convenient fall guy Sunday, but the loss does not fall solely on him. The whole secondary handled Carolina’s receivers as if they were wearing red jerseys, and Newton rarely looked as if he was under pressure. Quite the opposite, in fact. Newton had perhaps his best game since his 2015 MVP season, going 22 of 29 for 316 yards and three touchdowns. He ran for another score, the middle wide open as he rumbled 7 yards into the end zone.
“It’s never one guy,” Devin McCourty said. “There’s 11 guys out there, I’m never going to say it’s one guy who stunk it up.
“It doesn’t matter who it is or what the issue is,” he added. “We just got to fix it.”
The same can be said for the offense. Sure, Brady rallied the Patriots from a 14-point hole, going 11 of 14 on the two scoring drives. But New England got within the Carolina 25 two other times and settled for field goals. And until the Patriots were in dire straits, he ran far too much of the offense through Rob Gronkowski and James White.
Brady has a comfort zone with those two — Gronk in particular — and it’s understandable that he’s going to lean heavily on his old standbys with Julian Edelman out for the year. But it makes the Patriots far too predictable.
Look at those drives that got the Patriots back into the game. Brady branched out, finding Danny Amendola and Brandin Cooks and handing off to Dion Lewis, and the Panthers were powerless to stop them.
“We’ve got to do a better job all the way around,” Brady said.
“We just haven’t done a great job putting together four quarters of football.”
Perfection is no longer an option for the Patriots, if it ever really was. If they don’t fix their flaws fast, they’ll find the rest of the season slipping away, too.
By Nancy Armour
This article was republished with permission from the original author and 2015 Ronald Reagan Media Award recipient, Nancy Armour, and the original publisher, USA Today. Follow columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.