FOXBOROUGH -- The good news for the Patriots is that NFL owners haven't rammed home an "enhanced" 18-game season yet, so last night's uninspiring 36-35 loss to the St. Louis Rams doesn't count, sort of like the players' opinion on an extended regular season.
Still, it was certainly disconcerting to watch a decidedly un-enhanced Patriots team make rookie quarterback Sam Bradford and the retooling Rams look like a playoff team. The only thing shorter than the responses of a dour and disappointed Patriots coach Bill Belichick after the game were the Patriots' first four offensive drives, which lasted a total of 5 minutes and 55 seconds and yielded one first down.
If you hit fast-forward on the DVR you missed entire Patriots possessions.
Before Tom Brady hit Wes Welker on a 39-yard catch-and-run with 3:26 left in the half, the Patriots had a total of 25 yards of offense. And between the offense and the defense, Brady and offense were the unit that was performing most effectively. The Rams rolled up 20 points and 241 yards of offense in the first half against the New England defense, which struggled to get off the field. St. Louis ran 42 first-half plays to the Patriots' 18.
"Terrible execution across the board. That’s the worst of it really," said running back Sammy Morris.
The Patriots better hope so.
After a pair of encouraging efforts against the defending Super Bowl-champion New Orleans Saints and the Atlanta Falcons it was not what anyone was expecting from the Patriots in the third preseason game, which is supposed to be the most meaningful of the meaningless games. What does last night's game mean? Not anything more than the encouraging previous preseason performances.
It's easy to push the panic button, roll out the I-told-you-so's and write obituaries after a game like last night's.
However, if the Patriots had gone out and pounded the Rams, shutting out Bradford and lighting up Steve Spagnuolo's defense then the pronouncement would have been that they just beat up on a rookie quarterback and a rebuilding team that is coming off a 1-15 campaign. That wouldn't have proved the Patriots were improved, just like last night doesn't prove they're not.
It would have been no more reasonable to hail such a blowout as a sign the Patriots were a dominant team than to signal that last night's clunker indicates they're a terrible one. The Patriots were in a bit of a no-win situation playing the Rams, and they not only lost, they lost in poor form and fashion. For that they have no one to blame but themselves.
This game was a reminder that reading too much into preseason football -- good or bad -- is an exercise in futility. The Patriots are somewhere between the team that fell flatter than a blueberry pancake against a cupcake opponent and the one that showed promise against the Saints and Falcons. My guess is they're closer to the latter than the former, lest anyone would be willing to bet the declining value of their home on the Rams finishing with a better record than the Patriots this season.
Building up to the season is a step-by-step process and the Patriots stumbled, tripped and fell on their face last night. That doesn't mean they've fallen and they can't get up. They'll get up, dust themselves off and continue to prepare for the season-opener Sept. 12 against the Bengals. By then, hopefully, rookie cornerback Devin McCourty will not be biting on double-moves, rookie linebacker Brandon Spikes will react faster to a tight end lined up as a fullback coming out of the backfield, and Belichick will drum up some sort of way to generate a pass rush.
Brady, who is now in his 11th season, lent some perspective to last night's proceedings by pointing out where in the season the Patriots are now. If the season were a day, then Brady said the Patriots are at 6 a.m.
"I certainly didn't play perfect out there. There are some things I need to do better," said Brady. "It's early, it's really early. It's really early. It's the third preseason game, so what it means is there is a lot more to evaluate tomorrow. Kind of another game in the books, and we'll see how everybody competes."
Someday soon a game like last night's will count -- under an 18-game season last night would have been the season-opener -- but for now it doesn't.
It's simply a garbage performance in a throw-away game.
Nothing more and nothing less.
...That's what the Patriots have when it comes to picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, which starts Thursday. After all those years of stockpiling picks the way a survivalist does non-perishables the Patriots have just five picks in this year's draft, thanks to Band-aid trades for Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco and Aqib Talib. Five picks would be the fewest draft picks in franchise history. (Part of that is attributable to the trimming of the draft to just seven rounds in 1994). Further complicating matters is that two of the Patriots' greatest needs are at wide receiver and cornerback, positions where they have sustained draft droughts. With that in mind, I'm convinced the Patriots are going trade back out of the first round of a quanity-over-quality draft where you're just as likely to pick a Pro Bowl player in the second and third round as you are in the first round.