If you skipped Sunday night's matchup between the New England Patriots and Houston Texans and only looked at the box score, you could be fooled into believing that the home team just got the better of a fellow playoff-caliber squad in a tight contest.
The reality, of course, is that the Texans dominated New England when it mattered in a 28-22 victory that looked like a blowout until the Pats generated several dignity-saving touchdowns in what was essentially garbage time.
Prior to that, the Patriots couldn't establish any offensive chemistry against a defense that entered Week 13 ranked 26th in DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average) at Football Outsiders. The Texans had surrendered the sixth-highest opposing passer rating in the NFL prior to Sunday, and yet the most decorated team in league history and its legendary quarterback found itself down 21-3 in the dying seconds of the third quarter.
Prior to throwing an 11-yard touchdown pass to an uncovered James White on New England's last offensive play of that quarter, Tom Brady had completed just 14 of 33 passes for 178 yards and zero touchdowns. Along with an interception, he had a passer rating of 47.3.
Against a D that no longer has stars J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney up front, it was an unacceptable performance by almost any standard.
But it shouldn't have been surprising.
Even with plenty of stat-padding in the final 16 minutes, Brady still posted a passer rating below 100 for the seventh consecutive game, which is a first for the 42-year-old who is clearly and understandably declining before our eyes.
In the next 24 hours, you'll see and hear a lot of folks defend Brady because of his pitiful supporting cast. Those not in denial will also admit that the oldest position player in the NFL has hit a wall.
The truth is New England's struggles aren't all on Brady, his receivers, his offensive line or his running game.
By forcing Brady to rely on Phillip Dorsett, Matt LaCosse, Jakobi Meyers and Mohamed Sanu, the Patriots have let their quarterback down. The football gods haven't been nice, either, and Brady's depleted offensive line is proof of that. Brady and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels routinely look incredulous, if not appalled.
And that's a shame, because Brady deserves better at this point in his storybook career. Maybe it's on Bill Belichick for giving up on Antonio Brown and Josh Gordon, both of whom would undoubtedly help the passing game right now. Maybe Rob Gronkowski let his pal down by retiring. Maybe the organization shouldn't have stuck No. 12 with his third starting left tackle in as many seasons.
But it's also true that great quarterbacks find a way, and that Brady is no longer a great quarterback.
This Pats offense is worn down, stretched out, thin and dull. But 2010 Brady, or even 2017 Brady, wouldn't stand for this. No way. Great quarterbacks carry teams on their backs, and Brady is at a point in his career where he needs his team to do more of the heavy lifting.
The Patriots have let Brady down, and Brady has let the Patriots down. It's a perfect storm in which his support disappeared just as he started to finally show his age.
The result is that after feasting on a soft schedule that masked their numerous flaws earlier in the season, the Patriots have been exposed. This was, incredibly, their best offensive performance since they hammered the New York Jets 33-0 on Monday Night Football in the middle of October.
Since then, they've scored nine offensive touchdowns in five games. They got away with it against the Cleveland Browns, Philadelphia Eagles and Dallas Cowboys because the defense compensated for their offensive struggles, but they weren't so lucky against the Texans and Baltimore Ravens.
New England didn't look like it was in either of those teams' league, which is a bad omen considering that the Texans and Ravens lead their respective AFC divisions, and that the Ravens now own a clear path to home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs.
The Patriots aren't special, particularly outside of Foxborough. Sure, they crushed the Jets, Washington Redskins and Miami Dolphins on the road, but in their four away games against teams that currently have more than four wins, they've been outscored 85-75 and are lucky to be 2-2.
The good news is their only remaining road game comes against the 1-11 Bengals in Cincinnati, and they can still leapfrog the Ravens with a strong finish. But even at Gillette Stadium, where they've won 21 consecutive games dating back more than two calendar years, they could be in trouble in upcoming matchups with the AFC West-leading Kansas City Chiefs (Week 14) and the 9-3 Buffalo Bills (Week 16).
Their offensive struggles have been accentuated against quality opponents. In his last six games against teams that now have five-plus wins, Brady has completed just 53.6 percent of his passes and has a rating of 74.6, while the New England offense has generated just 16.8 points per outing.
"The routine plays," NBC's Cris Collinsworth said during Sunday night's broadcast, "aren't routine anymore."
Something's been missing, and the sample is no longer small. This offense can't be trusted to perform consistently well enough to win in January, especially given that the defense was probably generating takeaways and points at an unrealistic and unsustainable pace against weak competition earlier this season.
Brady quite simply no longer has the arm to make splash plays as frequently as he'll need to with the personnel he has in place. He doesn't throw receivers open like he used to, and he certainly doesn't stretch the field like he did in his prime. Opposing defenses can cheat against Brady, and as more of that evidence appears on tape, they're taking more chances. He had a pair of dropped interceptions against Houston and what felt like about a handful more in Philadelphia.
Again, it could be worse. But the numbers are still staggering. Despite those bad throws that didn't result in picks, and even with fourth-quarter statistical inflation in Houston, Brady's numbers continue to decline on a monthly basis.
He had a 97.5 rating in September, a 92.8 rating in October, and he's got a 76.4 rating since. He completed two deep passes for 40-plus yards in New England's season-opening blowout against the Steelers but has done so just once since then.
Look broadly, and it's just as obvious. His completion percentage, yards per attempt, touchdown rate and passer rating have all dropped in three consecutive seasons, regardless of whether he was protected by Trent Brown and David Andrews and throwing to Gronkowski or protected by Isaiah Wynn and Ted Karras and throwing to LaCosse.
Brady is the only quarterback in NFL history to experience any real success after turning 42, but he's running on fumes in a car built using too many spare parts.
That doesn't mean the Patriots won't still find a way to win the Super Bowl, because Brady is Brady and Belichick is Belichick and there aren't a lot of high-end vehicles in this race. But with each passing week, it becomes harder to imagine Brady recovering and—with a dearth of weapons beyond Julian Edelman and James White—harder to envision the Patriots overcoming that in order to capture a seventh Lombardi Trophy.
Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012.