These are the youngest Patriots of the Bill Belichick Era, as Globe football writer Greg Bedard recently told us, and so maybe we should have seen this coming. Maybe we should have anticipated the kind of no-show the Patriots had on Sunday at Gillette Stadium, where the Patriots generally looked unprepared from the start and their kicker looked lost at the finish.
Whatever your questions in the wake of a 20-18 defeat to the Arizona Cardinals that was, in a word, uncharacteristic, add them to the list. Why are the Patriots continuing to be stubborn with Brian Waters? Does Wes Welker have a place here or not? Can Stephen Gostkowski really make a big kick? Why are the Patriots running Danny Woodhead on third-and-6? (And why are they running him right?) What has happened to New England's once-vaunted special teams?
Most important: is this team as good as we thought it was as recently as six weeks ago, particularly entering a Week 3 matchup with a Baltimore Ravens team that is coming off a loss, that is 20-1 in its last 21 regular and postseason home games, that has something to prove after losing to the Patriots in last year's AFC Championship game?
Nobody is suggesting the Patriots are in a crisis just yet, but short of Belichick, Tom Brady, and defensive lineman Vince Wilfork, there is simply not enough of a track record with this personnel for us to just look the other way, either.
For years, after all, the Patriots have been immune to the kind of loss they suffered on Sunday, one in which the Patriots essentially entered as a 14-point favorite at home. Try to find another occasion in the Belichick Era where they have stumbled quite like this. Entering Sunday, even including Belichick's inaugural 2000 season, the Patriots had the best home record in the NFL (76-20). Since the start of the 2009 season, the Pats were 23-1 in Foxboro during the regular season. With Tom Brady as the starting quarterback, the Patriots were 35-1 in their previous 36 regular season home games, the only defeat coming last season to the New York Giants.
Those Giants ultimately won the Super Bowl. Is anyone willing to predict the same for these Cardinals, who may have a budding quarterback controversy between Kevin Kolb and John Skelton?
Personnel and coaching seemed at the core of this loss, which is not to say that Belichick solely is to blame. He is merely a good place to start. Belichick chose this roster following an offseason in which he loaded up with people like Robert Gallery, Donte Stallworth, Jabar Gaffney and others, all while committing the draft to defense. The return of offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels further suggested offensive potency to go along with a defensive upgrade, all of which was on display in Week 1 at Tennessee.
That led people like Pete Prisco of CBS Sports to wonder whether the Patriots had the potential for another 16-0 regular season.
Now, suddenly, the Patriots have enough concerns on offense to choke Don Coryell. Independent of the uncertainty surrounding Wes Welker -- Bedard addresses that here -- Aaron Hernandez has been lost to injury. More critically, the Patriots have an offensive line that seems insufficient, the overmatched Donald Thomas starting at right guard on Sunday in place of the injured Dan Connolly.
Connolly, of course, was starting at right guard because the Pats are holding their ground with Waters, who went to the Pro Bowl last season. As if intent on making a point, the Patriots subsequently ran behind Thomas twice on third down in the second half of Sunday's game, producing on nine-yard loss with Danny Woodhead (on third-and-6) and a four-yard loss with Stevan Ridley (on third-and-4).
Last week, on more than one occasion, the Patriots demonstrated an ability to power the football behind the left side of their offensive line, particularly when tight end Rob Gronkowski joined the beastly tandem of Nate Solder and Logan Mankins. Why the Patriots didn't do the same on Sunday is open for debate, and it is a far more confounding question than to ask why the Patriots are running at all.
In the latter instance, at least we can rationalize the answer by noting the Patriots' continued inability to pass protect. They couldn't circle Brady in the preseason and they still can't circle him now. The Patriots ran 16 times in the first half on Sunday and threw the ball on just 12 occasions, and Brady was sacked four times overall on the afternoon, including three in the first half.
All things considered, the defense in this game was not bad. Arizona's only real touchdown drive was a costly one, to be sure, the Cardinals' extending their lead to 20-9 early in the fourth quarter on a nine-play, 75-yard drive that featured one play in which Kolb made a 26-yeard completion to tight end Todd Heap while the Patriots were simultaneously incurring a pair of personal fouls. Arizona's only other touchdown drive came after a blocked punt that gave the Cardinals a first down at the New England 2-yard line -- and after Arizona nearly blocked an earlier attempt by Zoltan Mesko.
Were the Patriots prepared for this? Did they do anything to adjust after the first near miss? Or were they all just blissfully ignorant, expecting to win because that is what the Patriots usually do?
Despite it all -- and thanks to some astonishing good fortune -- the Patriots still had a chance to win the game, a Ryan Williams fumble landing in their laps on the Arizona 30-yard line with 1:01 to play. And before Patriots fans lament a highly questionable holding call on Gronkowski that negated a game-winning touchdown run by Woodhead, remember that the Patriots ended up with a first-and-10 at the Arizona 18-yard line with 46 seconds still to play. After another penalty on Gronkowski -- this one a false start that cost the Patriots five yards -- the Patriots seemed curiously content with a 42-yard field goal attempt by Stephen Gostkowski when another five or 10 yards would have still made a difference.
In the end, Gostkowski did precisely what his teammates had done all day, despite a final score that suggested the game was evenly played.
He missed badly.
And he triggered an avalanche of questions in the process.
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