The New England Patriots are good at forgetting. They did that after being thumped in a stunning Week 1 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs. They did it back in 2014 after being walloped in another prime-time game against those same Chiefs. The result of their amnesia that year was more Super Bowl jewelry.
Maybe in early February we'll look back on a shocking 27-20 Week 14 loss to the lowly Miami Dolphins with the same combination of confusion and laughter. We'll shrug and wonder how the Patriots went beyond just a hiccup and let out a loud belch against a now-6-7 team.
But another darker fate is just as likely for the front-running Patriots and their defense that was shredded by Jay Cutler.
No really, the Patriots made Cutler, a quarterback who had thrown six interceptions over his previous three starts, look like a much younger and more effective version of himself from…2008? 2010? All those interception-filled seasons start to blend together after a while.
The mistake-prone Cutler was lifted by a Patriots secondary that offered only inviting and gaping voids. There's never good timing for such a performance. But there is such a thing as the worst possible timing, as a defensive implosion one week before a showdown for AFC supremacy against the surging Pittsburgh Steelers is, well, a little less than ideal.
The AFC-leading Steelers are a nitro-fueled buzzsaw right now. They extended their winning streak to eight and clinched their division Sunday night during a thriller when quarterback Ben Roethlisberger threw for 506 yards. Antonio Brown, their all-universe wide receiver, is averaging 156.8 receiving yards over his last four games.
The Steelers (11-2) have an offense filled with dynamite at nearly every skill position, and they'll be waiting for the Patriots (10-3) at Heinz Field in Week 15. To contain the Steelers' famed Killer B's (Roethlisberger, Brown and running back Le'Veon Bell), the Patriots defense needed to come into the game riding just as high.
Instead, it couldn't possibly be lower.
There aren't many wounds to your pride that go deeper than ones inflicted by 2017 Jay Cutler. His thorough torching of the Patriots secondary really did happen, and it was highlighted by this heave to running back Kenyan Drake in the second quarter:
This effortless deep throw by Jay Cutler... A DIME to @KDx32! #FinsUp #NEvsMIA https://t.co/MYKLU6C9sI2017-12-12 02:34:28
That 47-yard connection led to a touchdown pass to wide receiver Jarvis Landry four plays later. It was one of three touchdown tosses for Cutler on the evening, a single-game mark he had reached just once in 10 previous 2017 starts.
Forget Cutler's game totals. We'll get to them in a minute. The first-half aerial display he put on was already enough to make you believe that maybe time travel is real and somehow a past Pro Bowl-caliber Cutler beamed down. Over those first two quarters Cutler threw for 181 yards, meaning he nearly equaled his prior per-game average of 183.7 yards.
The Patriots defense, meanwhile, had already allowed 13 points. For most teams that wouldn't be too much of an embarrassment at halftime. But it was for a unit that had seemingly left its early-season struggles in the past.
The Patriots allowed a mere 11.9 points per contest during an eight-game winning streak that started in Week 5 and ended Monday. The Dolphins and their 27th-ranked scoring offense needed just 30 minutes to strut past that mark.
Cutler finished with 263 passing yards, the second-highest single-game total of his season. He wasn't the only one enjoying a night of outrunning and outsmarting the Patriots defense. Drake sure seemed rather comfortable too.
He finished with 193 yards from scrimmage, and as Pro Football Focus illustrated, the Patriots' lack of fundamental tackling contributed to his long jogs deep into the Miami night:
Pro Football Focus @PFF
Kenyan Drake was a workhorse tonight 👀 https://t.co/1QFCDlc9hV2017-12-12 04:51:08
Allowing 122 yards after contact is the sort of number that shines with bright, glowing neon lights before a game against the Steelers.
That's when the Patriots will have to contain Bell, who's famously one of the league's most patient runners and routinely falls forward while pinballing his way to extra yardage. Bell is averaging a mammoth 129.5 yards from scrimmage per game.
The ill-timed stumble against the Dolphins fell mostly on the Patriots defense. But an offense that failed on all 11 of its third-down conversion attempts isn't blameless. Neither is Tom Brady, the quarterback of that offense who threw two interceptions and didn't complete a pass to a wide receiver until the 10:18 mark of the third quarter.
Brady led an offense that recorded seven three-play drives. Incredibly, the Patriots finished the first quarter without a completion and only two yards of offense.
The impact of tight end Rob Gronkowski's one-game suspension was significant. The Patriots overcame his absence on their way to another championship in 2016, but that came when wide receiver Julian Edelman was healthy.
Gronkowski will give the offense a jolt when he returns in Week 15. He'll be that steady source of security when Brady is in trouble and under pressure. Or he'll be the behemoth red-zone target who muscles his way toward winning jump balls.
But he won't be playing defense. He won't be putting out fires in the secondary, and he won't be making sure Bell is wrapped up a week after Drake gained so many yards after contact.
He won't be able to bail out a defense that might need it as the Patriots risk falling down the AFC ladder.