Entering Week 3, the New England Patriots were ranked third in ESPN’s power rankings. Even before the loss to the Buffalo Bills, the writing was on the wall that the team did not deserve the ranking and may not belong in the Top 10.
In a Week 1 victory, the Pats gave up over 400 yards passing to Chad Henne. This is the same Chad Henne that just a few weeks ago had Miami Dolphin fans chanting Kyle Orton’s name at practice. The San Diego Chargers were some stupid mistakes (see: Tolbert, Mike) away from giving the Pats a scare.
Quite simply, the Patriots look far from the unit that won three Super Bowls. Those teams won via a strong defense, a sound running game and timely passing from Tom Brady. The 2011 Patriots have none of those things. Brady may be having a phenomenal season, but throwing 44 times per game can hardly be considered timely.
The defense is atrocious—and time and time again it is proven that defenses win championships. After three games, the pass defense ranks 32nd in the league and is giving up an astounding 377 yards per game.
With a defense like that, the brilliance of Tom Brady is all but wasted. His record-setting pace is only outdoing opposing quarterbacks by 60 yards per game. The secondary is trying to make due with a no-name group of Devin McCourty, Sergio Brown, Josh Barrett and Kyle Arrington.
The rest of the D is not helping the hapless quartet. Even though opponents are airing it out against the Patriots, the team is 20th in the NFL with six sacks. The team made a lot of noise re-building a pass rush that finished 14th in the NFL in 2010. However, former Pro Bowlers Shaun Ellis, Andre Carter and Albert Haynesworth have combined for one-half of a sack.
How will the Pats finish the season?
At first glance, it seems the Patriots rushing defense is holding its own. The team ranks 11th in the NFL at 91.7 yards allowed per game.
Upon further review, when teams want to run the ball, there has been little resistance; the team has given up over 4.5 yards per carry. New England has been merely okay on the ground themselves; they rank 13th in the NFL in that category.
That leaves one aspect of the game in which the Pats have been truly elite: Tom Brady and the passing game, which ranks first in the NFL. A quick look at recent history will tell you that will not get it done. The top six passers in 2010 won exactly zero playoff games.
Based on statistics, the Green Bay Packers and Pittsburgh Steelers were elite in three out of four categories. Even where they lagged behind (passing game for the Steelers; running game for the Packers) the teams executed when they needed to and neither could be considered a weakness.
The New England Patriots won three Super Bowls in four years by being a team. They lined up and punched opposing teams in the mouth on both sides of the ball, stats be damned. They were underdogs that rose up and beat higher-flying teams like the St. Louis Rams and Philadelphia Eagles.
Somewhere after the 2004 season, they lost that identity. In fact, they look a lot like the teams they used to bully into submission.
Will Brady and Belichick win another ring?
Gone are Corey Dillon and the power running game. Gone are Rodney Harrison, Tedy Bruschi and the proud defense. The offensive line still protects Brady—at least until the elite defenses come to town. Now, the line has lost their most consistent player, Dan Koppen, for the season.
What is left is a one-man show, which used to be the exact opposite of what these Patriots were about. Sure, they will rack up a bunch of wins and will probably win the AFC East. Then the playoffs will come around, and a hungry young team will be lurking. They will run and throw against that defense, and they will come after Brady and rack up the sacks.
For the seventh straight season, Tom Brady and Bill Belichick will be watching as someone else hoists the Lombardi Trophy they seemed so sure was destined to be theirs. Then they will head to the offseason and look for the next quick fix, forgetting the philosophy that won them three Super Bowls in the first place.