The Patriots have now lost three games by a total of four points, and the AFC East now looks like a mass of mediocrity. Through Week 6 of this football season, in the big picture of the NFL, the Patriots are really no better off than the Buffalo Bills or Miami Dolphins. No better off than the New York Jets.
Leaders by a 23-10 score halfway through the fourth quarter on Sunday, the Patriots spiraled to a 24-23 defeat to a Seattle Seahawks team that still ranks 31st in the NFL in passing offense. In the final quarter alone, the Seahawks completed passes of 51 and 46 yards (the latter for a game-winning touchdown) while also drawing a 40-yard pass interference penalty, the kind of laughable occurrence that takes place in a high school football game. Or maybe in the neighborhood sandlot.
Meanwhile, the vaunted New England offense went scoreless on its final three possessions and without so much as a first down on its final two, continuing a disturbing pattern that has been in place now for quite some time.
Simply put, the Patriots cannot close. On offense. On defense. On the road or at home.
And it has reached the point where a team coached by Pete Carroll looks far more poised down the stretch than one steered by the great Bill Belichick.
“We studied film and the first thing we said was, ‘We’ll have opportunities to take passes down the field,'" Seattle wide receiver Sidney Rice told reporters. "And all we had to do was take advantage of it.’’
And so the Seahawks did. And there seemingly wasn't a thing the Patriots could do about it, their defensive backs helping rookie quarterback Russell Wilson to 293 yards on just 16 completions. Wilson went 5-for-9 for 116 yards and two touchdowns in the final quarter, a rating of 140.0. Rookie quarterbacks are supposed to wilt in the final quarter, but the Patriots are made Wilson look like a young Peyton Manning.
Which brings us to this: In three of the last four games, the Patriots' fourth-quarter passing defense has been downright nonexistent. (Calling it a pass "defense" is oxymoronic.) Against Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco, Manning, and now Wilson, the Patriots have allowed opponents to complete 27 of 40 passes (67.5 percent) for 394 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions -- a rating of 132.7. Meanwhile, New England quarterback Tom Brady has gone 13 for 26 (50 percent) for zero touchdowns and one pick -- a rating of 53.5.
Get the picture? When the game is on the line, the Patriots don't just crack. They break into a million little pieces, including Brady, who on Sunday went 5-of-13 for 81 yards, zero touchdowns and one interception, a ghastly rating of 28.0.
Said Belichick to reporters following Sunday's loss, "“Nothing we did [on Sunday] was good enough. On offense, defense, special teams, coaches, players, everybody involved in the game. It just wasn’t good enough. We all made mistakes. We had our chances, we just didn’t do a good-enough job.’’
That is a stock answer from Belichick, of course, but he's rarely been more right. Just before Seattle's final drive, New England netted 14 yards on a Zoltan Mesko punt because the Patriots allowed a 25-yard return to Leon Washington. Against Arizona in Week 2, despite New England's ineptitude on offense throughout the day, the Patriots still should have won after Cardinals running back Ryan Williams fumbled in the final minute -- but Stephen Gostkowski missed a 42-yarder. New England breakdowns in the final quarter have been the most consistent part of their play this season, even in a Week 5 over the Denver Broncos, over whom the Patriots held a 31-7 advantage with slightly less than 20 minutes to play.
The Patriots ultimately won that game, of course, though we can now wonder whether the Broncos merely ran out of time. New England's only other victories this season were decisive, one-sided wins against Tennessee and Buffalo, an unnerving reality given who the Patriots once were and how they did things.
Once upon a time, lest we forget, the Patriots were the ones who sought to keep games close and win them at the end. Now they play at a frantic pace and try to hold on for dear life, a strategy that has seemingly given them the same chances as a coin flip in close games.
In the Patriots' last real playoff win, after all, Baltimore Ravens wide receiver Lee Evans all but dropped a game-winning touchdown pass. Kicker Billy Cundiff, who still hasn't recovered, subsequently missed a 32-yard chippie that would have sent the game to overtime. While teams like the New York Giants rise to the occasion in big situations, the Patriots now wilt.
As luck would have it, next up for the Patriots are the New York Jets, who, along with Buffalo and Miami, possess the same 3-3 record the Patriots do. New York is 2-0 in the division. Patriots loyalists might be quick to suggest that the Patriots are clearly a better team than the offensively-inept Jets, though we all know the rule espoused by the great Bill Parcells during his long and accomplished career as an NFL coach and executive: you are what your record says you are.
At the moment, that record tells us the Patriots are 3-3.
And in the fourth quarter, they have looked like something far worse than that.
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