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Rising to their defense

Posted by Eric Wilbur, Boston.com Staff December 1, 2009 09:16 AM

Here's a passage I just dug up, written nearly a year ago. Tell me if you can compute to which team the writer in question is referring:

Bah, humbug. Here we go again. Four losses in their past five games. Four losses by 21 or more points this season. The offensive line is getting worse. Members of the defense talk a lot better than they perform. Their image and credibility are shot. A disgusted starting quarterback is telling teammates to look in the mirror. This is how a team peaks for the playoffs?

This could've been a statement day
A chance to clear their name
Instead, the ----- are going down
As the worst team ever to stage a playoff game

That was Dan Bickey in the Arizona Republic the day after the Cardinals were humiliated by the Patriots, 47-7, the eighth-worst loss in a franchise history that has seen its share of ugly moments. The Patriots gained 514 total yards in that game at a snowy Gillette Stadium, and seemed destined to make the playoffs a sixth-straight season. The Cardinals, meanwhile, were about to become just another lame-duck playoff team, only in the dance because they were lucky enough to be the best of the worst in the NFC West.

A week later, the Pats were out. A month later, the Cardinals were in the Super Bowl, and came within a Santonio Holmes tip-toe from winning it.

One thing may have nothing to do with the other, but history is just as good a place as any to look to in order to try and soothe the burn of the Patriots' embarrassing loss last night on national TV.

Maybe it's comforting to sit back today and point to Week 17 two years ago, when the Patriots beat the New York Giants to go 16-0, only to watch the latter use the game as a barometer in an unexpected rematch a few weeks later.

Perhaps there's some sense of reassurance in noting that each of the past five Super Bowl champions was unceremoniously blown out by an opponent* over the course of the regular season. Bill Belichick may even yet still prove he's a master of making adjustments in possible playoff rematches with the Colts and the Saints.

*2008 Steelers, 31-14 vs. Titans
2007 Giants, 41-17 vs. Vikings
2006 Colts, 44-17 vs. Jaguars
2005 Steelers, 26-7, vs. Colts
2004 Patriots, 34-20, vs. Steelers

But after what transpired last night in New Orleans, it's certainly more difficult to have overwhelming faith in the 2009 Patriots. If the loss at Indy was encouraging in that Pats fans could note their team's ability to hang with the Colts in their building, last night's 38-17 loss was a demoralizing beatdown.

There are two trains of thought here when it comes to this team. One says that despite their defensive woes and inability to win on the road, this is a team that knows how to win come January. So as long as New England makes the playoffs, everything will be fine.

The other supposes that the dynasty is over, Belichick has lost the hard-handed knack that made him the coach of the decade, and the Patriots are a team closer to the .500 also-rans, rather than NFL elite.

Reality probably stands somewhere in between.

The Saints pounded out 484 total yards on offense, against a Patriots defense that was parts unprepared, confused, and overmatched. What seemed a decided advantage for the Patriots in a Saints patchwork secondary boasting two guys (Mike McKenzie and Chris McAlister) who would have had to buy a ticket two weeks ago went for naught. Belichick played to control the clock in the first quarter, a game plan that blew up about as quickly as it took Drew Brees to pump another ball into the end zone.

Remarkably, it was only 24-17 as late as the third quarter in a game that will go on the short list of Tom Brady's worst career games. From a Patriots' perspective, that might be the only encouraging aspect to emerge. But for as soundly as the team was beaten into the turf of a dome where New England once celebrated its greatest moment, that's little-to-no consolation. It was yet another second-half defensive collapse for a Patriots team that is a Mark Clayton dropped ball away from being 6-5. They've yet to have a convincing win against any team over .500. Who knows what to expect on the road Sunday in Miami, a spot where the Patriots have historically had difficulty.

Despite the bad taste lingering from last night, New England will likely finish the season 10-6 (even if they win out at home, and go winless on the road, 9-7 probably wins the East) and will host a wild card playoff game. How the script gets written from there is anyone's guess.

It's just that the Patriots used to be in the elite class now occupied by the Saints, Colts, and Vikings. They used to be the ones that could look forward to a playoff bye and home-field advantage. They were the ones chasing the elusive 19-0 season.

They're not that team anymore. Last night gave us a glimpse of how bad they can be. We're still waiting for any sort of clue as to how good they can be.

A year ago, they were waiting for the same thing in Arizona. Two years ago, Giants fans had no idea what to expect from its team in the playoffs. And so on...

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