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ON FOOTBALL

To err like this, they're human

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- What the New England Patriots proved yesterday is what some of their more rabid fans long ago seem to have forgotten. They're human. Nothing worse than that.

They had a bad day against a good team, and when you have a bad day against a good team what follows is the kind of mess they produced at Bank of America Stadium, a 27-17 loss to the Carolina Panthers that was worse than the score made it seem but not yet cause for anyone to run off wearing sackcloth and ashes.

There are, to be sure, clear reasons for concern, the most glaring the continued absence of a running game. But it is early in what will be a long season, and so we must do what many of us hate most in life. We must wait for further evidence to see whether what we have seen in their first two games is an apparition or something to be truly concerned about.

Yesterday the defending Super Bowl champions committed 12 penalties, rushed for 39 yards, and converted only 29 percent of the time on third down. Play like that and it's not just the Carolina Panthers who will beat you. It's the Arizona Cardinals. It's the Cleveland Browns. On the wrong night it might even be USC.

''If we played the worst team in the league today it would have been the same thing," Patriots linebacker Willie McGinest said. ''We're not going to go into panic mode. We're a good team. It's early in the year. But until we play better than this we're an average team. This was unacceptable. Totally unacceptable."

Next Sunday New England journeys to Pittsburgh, a place where things will not be any easier. The Steelers are 2-0, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is 15-0 as a starter (excluding playoff games), third-string running back Willie Parker has put up back-to-back 100-yard games in the absence of Duce Staley and Jerome Bettis, and their defense is, well, steel-like. Their presence will in no way intimidate the Patriots, but it reminded them yesterday that what happened in Charlotte cannot be repeated because if it is they still won't be in panic mode but they might be able to see it from where they'll be standing.

Yet not too much should be made of yesterday's miserable performance either. It has been a long time since the Patriots laid an egg like this one, and it must be remembered that they are human. Even the best postman occasionally delivers your magazines next door. Once in a while even a master mechanic forgets to change the oil filter. Football players are no different than the rest of us in that regard. They have their off days.

The alarming thing is that they have been manhandled at the line of scrimmage in their first two games while trying to run the ball. Against the Raiders and the Panthers, New England's running game has been impotent, and that's being kind. It is also something that cannot be so easily dismissed.

In both games they came away averaging 2.4 yards per carry and Corey Dillon ran more like Chester, the limping character in the old ''Gunsmoke," than the new sheriff in town. Seldom did he seem to explode into a hole and even less often did he explode out of one, in part because there weren't many to explode into in the first place.

The Panthers entered this game with that very intention and even with Pro Bowl defensive tackle Kris Jenkins out with a torn ACL, Carolina was able to control Dillon by controlling the line of scrimmage in much the same way the Raiders did 10 days ago, albeit from a different defensive front.

''The challenge for us was don't let Corey Dillon get started," said Panthers defensive tackle Brentson Buckner. ''Because when he gets started, now you've got to bring safeties in the box to stop him. And Tom Brady's play-action is dangerous."

Yesterday they didn't have to worry about play-action or much of any other action by the Patriots because New England's offense was so often in second and long and third and long that play-action was out of the question. Inaction was more the order of the day for an offense that has made its considerable reputation by avoiding the kind of mistakes that littered the performance against the Panthers.

''I think we got out-toughed," center Dan Koppen said. ''They wanted it more. You can't do that in their house. They feel the energy from their crowd. We're here alone. We know that. You can't make the kind of mistakes we made in that kind of situation because it's hard to fight back.

''If we play like that every week we won't win another game. We got away with a lot of stuff last week against Oakland and it came back to bite us. We never got anything going. I don't know what's wrong with our running game, but we better play better if we expect to fix it."

One thing that has to be watched is Dillon. He'll be 31 next month, which is a critical age for many running backs, especially ones that have touched the ball as often as he has in traffic during his eight-year career.

It is way too early to speculate if the running game's problems are related to Dillon beginning to fade, but he has touched the ball an average of 301 times a year during his career, and that carries with it a toll on the legs and reflexes that eventually has to be paid.

He is, to be fair, coming off his greatest season, a 1,635-yard rushing year in which he ran for a career-high 12 touchdowns and averaged 4.7 yards a carry. He has talked about having come into training camp this summer in better condition than a year ago as well. Perhaps so, but to date he's averaging 49.5 yards a game and 2.65 yards per carry after two weeks. A year ago this time, he was averaging 122 yards a game and just under 5.2 yards per carry. Is the dropoff merely an aberration or something to be concerned about?

If the problems of the running game continue, so will the kind of problems of down and distance that plagued them yesterday.

''That's a good question," Brady said when asked what has mired down his running game. ''Nobody was happy with where we were [rushing] against the Raiders. We just haven't had the production we'd like to see. I know the running backs are trying hard. The line is trying hard. We're getting some good run looks. We're just not executing. It's frustrating, but it's the second week of the season. It's a process."

Yesterday at Bank of America Stadium it was a process that didn't work too well. Much of the reason for that can be expected to be cleaned up, because this is not a team that generally makes the kind of mental errors or commits the kind of penalties that plagued it against the Panthers. But it also was a team that couldn't move the Raiders' massive defensive front off the line of scrimmage in the season-opening victory and couldn't do anything with the Panthers' four-man front yesterday either.

Dillon did not run wisely or well, but he also seldom had much running room, and the latter was not as much his doing as it was the men in front of him, as the Panthers' Julius Peppers pointed out.

''I think we dominated at times, but I guess it depends on what you call dominating," the explosive defensive end said. ''I think we played well and executed on defense."

The Patriots, meanwhile, executed themselves on offense with penalties that included six false starts, the nearly complete absence of a running game, and too many second-and-long and third-and-long situations that gave the edge to Carolina's fast and furious defense.

It's the kind of thing that can be dismissed because it is far from the way they have played during their glorious string of Super Bowl seasons, but it cannot be ignored.

''People were making a lot of mental lapses, and when you start first and 15, which we probably did three or four times, it's hard to make that ground up, especially against a good defense like Carolina's," Koppen said. ''We certainly didn't play very smart and didn't come out and do what we're capable of doing."

That is why Sunday's journey to Pittsburgh is so important. It is only Game 3, and there is no such thing as a must-win situation so early in the season. But what there is is a must-play-better situation and a must-run-the-ball situation. If they do that, the rest of the problems will take care of themselves. If they don't . . . well let's not think about that quite yet.

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