THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Bob Ryan

How the mighty have fallen

By Bob Ryan
Globe Columnist / December 13, 2009

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Once regarded as merely flawed, the three-time Super Bowl champion New England Patriots are now clearly vulnerable, and with that realization comes a reduced level of fan expectation.

On paper, this afternoon’s game with the Carolina Panthers (the vanquished foe in Super Bowl XXXVIII) should result in an easy victory for the home team. Carolina is a 5-7 team with a quarterback issue. The Patriots remain undefeated (6-0) at Gillette Stadium. The only issue should be whether the Patriots can reward bettors by covering the spread.

But people who less than a month ago felt that any problems the Patriots may have were minor and fixable now fear the team - which just this week was cited by The Sporting News as the Team of the Decade - is actually in major decline and can no longer be considered a legitimate NFL power.

So let’s just say that people are now prepared for anything, even a home loss to the Carolina Panthers.

This has been a very bad week for the Patriots. Last Sunday, they were unable to hold either a 14-0 first-quarter lead or a 21-13 third-quarter advantage and were beaten on a late Miami field goal after they could not make a defensive stop on fourth and 6. It was their second straight defeat and their third in four games. It lowered their record to 7-5 and enabled both the Dolphins and the victorious New York Jets to come within a game of them in the AFC East standings.

On Wednesday, things took a bizarre turn when coach Bill Belichick told four players who were late for an 8 a.m. team meeting to go home. Among the tardy quartet were star wide receiver Randy Moss and veteran linebacker Adalius Thomas. That Belichick decision made life quite easy for talk-show hosts, columnists, and bloggers. Things like that simply do not happen in a vacuum. Anxious Patriots fans are now wondering, just how much trouble is there in the gridiron paradise known as Foxborough?

Another worry: Tom Brady may be far more injured than anyone in Foxborough will acknowledge. He took a frightful hit last week while delivering a touchdown pass to Moss and spent some time in the locker room, where, as he admitted in a WEEI radio interview, his time was not spent tending to equipment matters. He did not practice Wednesday or Thursday, and the Patriots acknowledged he now has a rib injury to accompany an ongoing finger problem on his throwing hand. As usual, he also was listed on the injury report as having an unspecified shoulder injury.

Brady was not the Brady of old in the second half of the Miami game, and it was not the first time this year that statement could be made. He started off in Hall of Fame fashion, completing 13 of 14 passes in the first half for 196 yards and that aforementioned touchdown. But he was only 6 for 15 in the second half, and the only points he and his offensive unit could generate were thanks to a catch by wide receiver Sam Aiken that was generally regarded as being somewhere between sensational and miraculous.

Otherwise Brady was inconsistent in the second half, overthrowing Aiken on a sure touchdown pass and misfiring on other occasions. Five straight weeks of throwing for 300-plus yards had fooled people into thinking he was all the way back following his knee injury. Last week’s performance was clear evidence that was not the case. The man is mortal. If you want to see what Tom Brady used to look like with the football in his hands, take a look at Drew Brees.

If the offense doesn’t improve, the Patriots are in deep trouble because the defense is not remotely the kind of unit that wins championships. The Patriots lack a pass rush, which invites opposing offensive coordinators to take extreme liberties with regard to formations. The standard practice now is to spread the field by maximizing the amount of receivers available, worrying not a whit about the exposed quarterback being pressured by Patriot defenders. The pressure on the defensive backs and linebackers who are forced into one-on-one matchups has been too much for the Patriots to overcome.

Dean Pees is the Patriots’ defensive coordinator, and he appears to have no ready remedy. This means the only way the Patriots can hope to defeat a good team is by matching them point-for-point in a shootout. The Patriots were able to do this right up to, and including, the infamous Indianapolis game of Nov. 15, but the Saints shut them down - they are the only team thus far capable of neutralizing both Moss and the wily Wes Welker - and so did the Dolphins, at least in the second half.

The Colts game was the night of the endlessly-discussed fourth-and-2 decision by Bill Belichick. It’s undeniable: That call, and that game, jointly constituted the turning point of the season.

A victory the following week over the Jets proved only that the Jets were an early-season Roman candle that had finally fizzled out. The loss to the Saints was sobering. The loss to the Dolphins, however, was something else. It was revealing.

Beginning in 2001, the Patriots had established an image and a feel. They weren’t great every year (e.g. 9-7 in ’02, 10-6 in ’05), but they were never less than pretty darn good, and when they weren’t great, there was sufficient rationale to explain the slight drop in performance.

But for much of this past decade, the Patriots have been truly great. They had back-to-back seasons of 14-2. They established a record for consecutive regular-season victories (since matched by dreaded rival Indianapolis). They put together back-to-back Super Bowl championships. They ran off 18 straight wins in one season before losing a Super Bowl in the last minute to an inspired Giants team whose quarterback pulled off an escape play in advance of a key completion he had never made before and hasn’t since.

They became a source of pride and comfort hereabouts, and Bill Belichick established himself as one of the great coaches who has ever lived. Our local motto has been “In Bill We Trust.’’

Now we must start thinking that we may have seen the best of Tom Brady. And we know that Bill Belichick does not have all the answers. Players who helped police the locker room, veterans with powerful personalities such as Mike Vrabel, Tedy Bruschi, and Rodney Harrison, are gone. Some of the newcomers are not as willing to buy into Belichick’s stern, unsentimental methods.

The team is 0-5 on the road, in addition to that neutral triumph over Tampa Bay in London. That may be all anyone needs to know about what this team really is.

Something quite serious must be going on for Bill Belichick to react to the weather-induced tardiness of those four players in such an unforgiving manner. He obviously seized upon their situation as a juicy coachable moment in which he could reassert his authority and impress upon all 53 players under his command that games are won by virtue of actions, large and small, on all seven days of the week, not just Sunday.

He’s far from stupid. He knew the risk involved. Consider this his offday fourth-and-2 call. With four games left, he decided he had to go for it.

Regardless, the Big Picture has changed. There is a new roster of NFL elites, and it does not include the New England Patriots. Fans are no longer entitled to a semblance of a superiority complex. The Patriots are the kind of team that would do well to win a playoff game; no more. That’s the new fan reality.

Watching the Patriots now is like seeing your once-vigorous parents slow down. It’s a new, unsettling situation and you’re not sure how to handle it. And you know it won’t be a happy ending.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist and host of Globe 10.0 on Boston.com. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.

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