ANDY REID had to say it, or at least something like it, so as not to disrespect his opponent or disparage what his own team had just done in whupping the Patriots while the football world watched Monday night.
Bill Belichick, said the Chiefs coach, “still has a very good football team.”
But we know he was just being polite. Because by now we know that’s simply not true.
Denial was plausible after Week 1, because Miami is a tough place to win, and it was just the opener. It was plausible after Week 2, because despite some offensive struggles, 23-point road wins don’t come easy in the NFL. And it made sense after Week 3, because the defense didn’t surrender a touchdown all day, even though the Raiders fired their coach eight days later and were within a holding penalty of tying things in the final minute.
But after Week 4, after the Chiefs throttled the Patriots, 41-14, in what tied for the second-most lopsided loss in Belichick’s tenure, New England’s football fans have no choice but to come to grips with the fact that their team is not elite. Rather, their Pats are far from it.
Any belief to the contrary is ignoring what’s now a quarter-season of underwhelming performance, and instead buying into the rhetoric of a history that is at this point inconsequential, because right now it doesn’t matter that the team has a track record of turning it on in the second half.
All that matters in evaluating what this 2014 team is, and what it could be, is what we’ve seen through the first four games, and there’s been absolutely nothing in that sample to suggest these Patriots are a threat to win anything beyond the AFC East. Worse, there’s nothing to suggest it’s going to get better anytime soon.
The offensive line remains equally in flux and in shambles, with its ill-fated night in Kansas City seeing two rookies start for the first time, a Pro Bowler get abused, and the entrenched left tackle get benched. In part as a result, the passing game remains among the league’s least productive, six yards per throw is third-worst, and there’s so little confidence the outside receivers will get open, the coaches didn’t even bother dressing them Monday.
At the same time, the defense yielded more yards (303) than any Belichick-coached team ever has in a first half, with the Chiefs following the Raiders’ lead in being unafraid to throw at Darrelle Revis, and likely establishing something of a blueprint by running right at Chandler Jones. It’s not as though the Patriots can overcompensate to counter that strategy, either, because it’s becoming clearer with each passing week that the interior of the defensive front is too soft.
That’s not exclusively a comment on the dropoff of Vince Wilfork. Just as the failures of the passing game do not reflect solely on the aging Brady, and the team’s difficulties on the whole can’t be pinned on Belichick alone. It’s not that simple. And that’s the problem. There is so much that needs to be addressed, it’s almost impossible to see it all getting straightened out soon, which is a serious problem, given their upcoming schedule.
This Sunday night, on a short week, they face an unbeaten Bengals team coming off a bye. Next it’s up to Buffalo, where they lost last year. Then they’re back for another short week, facing the Jets on a Thursday, and that’s followed by quite a gauntlet: Chicago, Denver, at Indianapolis (after a bye), Detroit, at Green Bay, at San Diego.
“There’s no doubt that this will be a challenging period of time for our team in terms of our mental toughness and resiliency and being able to handle a lot in somewhat of a compressed period,” Belichick said Monday.
The saving grace for the Patriots, of course, is that they play in AFC East, where one team just benched its quarterback (Bills), one team should bench its quarterback (Jets), and one team considered benching its quarterback last week (Dolphins). At 2-2, the Patriots are still in first place. The other three teams must also deal with significant tests from the NFC North and AFC West. And New England closes the year with three straight division games, two at home.
Even if they’re in the middle of the NFL pack, the Patriots could (and should) still rise to the top of the division. Get in the playoffs, and nothing says they can’t make a run. Before last year’s Seahawks, each of the four previous Super Bowl champs lost at least three of four at some point in the season that earned them the Lombardi.
In fact, back in 2003, the Patriots themselves weren’t in all that dissimilar of a position, having fallen to 2-2 with a loss at Washington in which they trailed 20-3 deep into the third quarter. That team didn’t lose again.
This team, though, isn’t that team. It isn’t any of the Patriots teams of the past 13 years, and so it’s silly to put them in the same class just because the coach and the quarterback and the logo are all still the same. Many of those expectation-setting teams were great.
But with all due respect and congratulations to Andy Reid, this team hasn’t shown anything to suggest it’s even any good.
Dave D’Onofrio covers the Patriots for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.