FOXBOROUGH -- Patriots coach Bill Belichick said during training camp that he would know what his team was made of about four weeks into the season.
But after Sunday's 41-17 loss at home to San Diego, the Patriots are 2-2 and still looking for an identity.
For the first time anyone can recall, Belichick alluded to the Patriots' injury situation as a contributing factor in the team's inconsistent play.
''Certainly there are some personnel issues there," he said. ''That's pretty well documented."
To rehash the most important of them, the Patriots are playing without three players expected to be starters on defense when the offseason began.
Linebacker Tedy Bruschi is recovering from a stroke, linebacker Ted Johnson was forced to retire because of repeated concussions, and safety Rodney Harrison is out for the season because of a knee injury suffered against Pittsburgh. Also out are Randall Gay and Tyrone Poole, who entered the season as options 1 and 1A at right cornerback.
With so many lineup changes, particularly lately, Belichick struggled at yesterday's news conference to put a finger on his team's identity.
He could not answer a question about what he knows or likes about his team.
''Well, I think the last couple of weeks, really all four weeks, we're a little bit of a team in transition," Belichick said. ''I wish I had a better answer to that question right now, but I'm not sure that I have one or there is one.
''There are a number of transitory things going on, or that have gone on, within the first four weeks of the season, and so that's put things in a little bit of a state of flux."
State of flux? The two-time defending Super Bowl champions?
After four games of the NFL season, the Patriots have been more up-and-down than a yo-yo. Forget the easily discernible game-to-game elevator ride -- beat Oakland, lose to Carolina, beat Pittsburgh, lose to San Diego -- Belichick's squad has been up and down from quarter to quarter, play to play.
Belichick used punt coverage and penalties to make the points, but said there are a thousand examples of inconsistency (he didn't mention a penchant for giving up big plays and an anemic running game) that leave him at a loss to forecast his team's direction.
''Wherever our team is now, I don't think we were necessarily there two weeks ago, one week ago, three weeks ago," Belichick said. ''I don't think it's apples to apples here. I don't think you're making a comparison of, 'this is where the team is,' and 'this is what we've been able to establish.'
''Some of the things, even if we have established them, we're probably going to have to re-establish them again in a different set of circumstances. Some of the things that maybe didn't look like they were very well established have at other points in time, probably looked pretty solid. Whether that, in fact, we're able to sustain that or not, I don't know."
Opponents have exposed several problems in the first month of the season that the Patriots didn't expect to have on their list of concerns. The most significant are on defense.
New England was 12-0 last season when it won or tied the turnover battle. Just four times did the Patriots have a negative turnover ratio, and in those games they were 2-2.
This season, the Patriots have lost the turnover battle in three of their four games, and have a minus-5 ratio for the season, with only three forced turnovers, and not more than one turnover in any game.
Through four games, the Patriots have only one interception. Last year they had 20 picks in the regular season and had at least one in all but four games.
The Chargers scored three touchdowns on four possessions inside the Patriots' 20-yard line, helping New England maintain its last-in-the-league status in red zone defense.
While the offense hit a wall at the half and never recovered against the Chargers, the defense was abused throughout the afternoon.
San Diego didn't turn the ball over at all, with quarterback Drew Brees completing 19 of 24 passes, and tailback LaDainian Tomlinson having little difficulty rushing for 134 yards.
The schedule doesn't get much easier the next couple of weeks. Next up is Michael Vick and the Atlanta Falcons, followed by a trip to Denver. Atlanta leads the league in rushing yards, San Diego is second and Denver third.
Patriots defensive end Ty Warren would not describe it as a manhandling, but said it was disheartening that so often Tomlinson was well past the line of scrimmage before encountering a Patriot.
''I think it's humbling in that aspect," Warren said. ''I don't remember losing many battles one-on-one with my man and a lot of guys [can say that], but they just outplayed, out-schemed us, whatever you want to say. They just executed better than we did.
''It definitely leaves a bitter taste in your mouth. It's a humbling experience and something we don't look forward to experiencing again."
Belichick said he doesn't know what's in store for his squad.
''I don't have a crystal ball," he said. ''I can't look into the future any better than you can.
''You can go back and read articles in the '03 season when we were 2-2 or you could go back and read articles in the '02 season when we were 3-1 or 3-0 and [see] how things looked at that point and how they ended up.
''Look, I don't have any better idea than you do."