THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Dan Shaughnessy

Reeling as big one gets away

By Dan Shaughnessy
Globe Columnist / December 7, 2009

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MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. - What a week for Bob Kraft. His team got undressed on “Monday Night Football,’’ his $9 million federally funded bridge deal was shelved Friday, and yesterday the Patriots blew a 14-0 lead and dropped a 22-21 decision to the not-very-good Miami Dolphins.

Ouch.

Sure, the Patriots are probably going to the playoffs, but winning the super-soft AFC East is like finishing ahead of three teams of Baltimore Orioles. It doesn’t give you a lot of confidence going into January.

Can anyone really feel good about the Patriots’ chances in the tournament? Your take-no-prisoner Patriots have morphed into conscientious objectors. They don’t strike fear into the hearts of their opponents. The inevitability of victory is gone. The Patriots are no longer automatically better and smarter than the other guys.

“We’ve got to coach better, play better, we’ve just got to do a better job,’’ said Bill “I’ll-go-for-it-on-fourth-down-until-it-kills-me’’ Belichick.

It is the second week of December and the Patriots have not won a legitimate road game (London doesn’t count). They have lost two straight for the first time since 2006, and three of four for the first time since 2002. They have four games remaining and they’ve already lost as many games as last year when Matt Cassel was the quarterback. If the playoffs started today, they would have zero wins against playoff teams.

Kraft’s well-oiled media machine (“Welcome back to ‘Patriot Monday’ here at sparkling CBS Scene at gorgeous Patriot Place’’) is going to earn its money this week.

The Patriots have no pass rush, which makes one wonder about the deal that sent Richard Seymour to Oakland on the eve of the season opener. Sure it will be nice when Belichick grabs the Raiders’ 2011 top pick, but the deal made New England worse this year and Boston traditionally has been a town where fans care about winning today, not tomorrow.

The Patriots have no running game, which usually matters in the playoffs. They could use somebody like Jim Nance or Ron Burton in one of those nifty throwback jerseys.

Tom Brady threw for another 352 yards yesterday, but New England’s offense is becoming pretty predictable: Randy Moss is always a threat and Sam Aiken made a spectacular play on an 81-yard TD, but most of the time it’s Brady-to-Welker and pray for rain.

Meanwhile, Belichick has gone off the deep end with fourth-and-whatever. It’s not the mystics and statistics telling Bill it’s a good idea to go for it on fourth down. It’s now apparent that he’s just doing it because he has no alternative. No arrogance now. Belichick is afraid to give the ball to the other team.

In the first half yesterday New England went for a first down on fourth and 1 from the Dolphins’ 6-yard line just after the two-minute warning. Sammy Morris was stuffed at the line of scrimmage and the Patriots came away with nothing.

“I thought we could make it,’’ Coach Bill deadpanned, just as he did in Indy three weeks ago. “It didn’t work out.’’

Just like it didn’t work out on fourth and 2 against the Colts. Just like it didn’t work out in the Bayou last week when they tried for 7 points and turned down the sure 3 in the second half.

After some pregame hysteria about a sore finger on his throwing hand (Vegas took the game off the board for a while) Brady completed 19 of 29 passes, but QB 12 couldn’t move the chains for the final drive in the final minute and he also had a pass intercepted in the end zone (on second and goal from the 5) in the fourth quarter.

“That probably tells the story,’’ said Brady. “When you’re down there in the red zone and you don’t score touchdowns . . . ’’

It’s worse than that. Twice they were inside the 10 and didn’t score a point.

This stuff never used to happen. Brady would go entire seasons without getting picked off in the end zone. It’s happened twice this year. The Patriots would go for it on fourth and 1 and convert on a QB sneak. Not now.

“We’ve just got to do a better job down there,’’ said Belichick. “I have to coach better and we have to play better.’’

It’s unthinkable that New England could lose after taking a 14-0 lead against a sub.-500 team that is without its starting quarterback (Chad Pennington) and best offensive player (Ronnie Brown).

But it happened. The Patriots got dope-slapped by Chad Henne. Road kill once again.

Like Johnny Cash, the Patriots have been everywhere. And lost everywhere.

“You have to be mentally tough to win on the road and right now our team is not mentally tough like we’re supposed to be,’’ said safety Brandon Meriweather.

Is this a case of a team underachieving, or (gulp) is it possible that 7-5 is exactly what they are?

“Everyone is trying to put their finger on it and really figure it out,’’ said Brady.

The Patriots were the best thing around for a long time, but it’s been five years since the last Super Bowl victory. At some point losing ceases to shock the senses. Maybe that’s where we are now.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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