Tom Brady and Bill Belichick are the winningest coach-quarterback combination in modern NFL history (since 1970), but they have finally encountered an opponent that they can't defeat -- themselves.
The Patriots simply can't win this season, because even when they do, it's not enough. The specter of the 2007 season hangs over their every game and their every play. New England isn't just playing the team on its schedule each week. It's lining up against the gridiron ghosts of its perfect regular-season past.
That's why there is so much agita about the team's 3-2 record and last week's 20-17 overtime loss on the road to the Denver Broncos and former offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels.
You remember 2007, when the Patriots turned NFL parity into a parody and the league into their personal playground, becoming the first team to post a 16-0 regular season and ringing up offensive records for points scored (589), touchdown passes by a quarterback (Brady's 50) and touchdown receptions by a wide receiver (Randy Moss's 23). The question wasn't whether the Patriots would win, but by how much -- at least until they ran into the Giants in Super Bowl XLII.
Now, forget it.
Memo to Patriots fans: 2007 is over, get over it.
Brady admitted as much in a CBS production meeting before the Patriots' 27-21 win over the Ravens, when he said 2007 was a once in a lifetime season, not a yearly expectation.
Brady, who is still feeling his way back after reconstructive knee surgery, may have walked back through that Gillette Stadium door, but too many other players and coaches, including McDaniels, have left Fort Foxborough to recapture the magic of that season.
It's no longer about winning with style points, it's simply about finding a way to score enough points to win.
That's something the Patriots haven't done consistently this season, which is a legitimate criticism and cause for measured concern.
Even last year with Matt Cassel guiding the offense, the Patriots averaged 25.6 points per game, but this year it's down to 20.8. Last season, the team scored 40 points in a game four times, the same as in the transcendent 2007 season.
The 27 points the Patriots scored against Baltimore marked their highest output of the season, which is surprising for an offense with Brady, Moss and Wes Welker. The Patriots are the only team in the NFL without both a pass completion of 40 yards or greater and a rush of 20 yards or greater.
Brady hasn't gone this deep into a season without a 40-yard pass play since the 2006 season, which was the season of his discontent due to the trade of top target Deion Branch. Brady didn't complete his first 40-yard-plus pass that year until the seventh game of the season, a Monday night win over the Minnesota Vikings.
Offensively, this looks eerily like that season, even though Brady has two of the league's best receivers. What he doesn't have is an experienced offensive coordinator, a third receiver he can trust and his pre-injury pinpoint accuracy.
"In some ways we've done some very positive things over the five weeks," said Brady. "In a lot of ways, we've been inconsistent, which reflects in the amount of points we're scoring. If we could be more consistent we'd be scoring more points, we'd be winning more games and everyone would be feeling a lot better around here.
"As it happens, we're still searching. It's not plays. It's execution. That is what it comes down to. We got to go out and execute better."
Offensively, you have to figure the malaise can't last.
Even if it persists and this season is 2006 redux, it's not a dire scenario. As much offensive angst as there was that season, the Patriots went 12-4 and were still one defensive stop away in Indianapolis from playing in the Super Bowl.
The reality is that the '09 Patriots are still a good team, still tied for the AFC East division lead and still a Super Bowl contender, depending on injuries and the other vagaries of an NFL season. That makes them no different from the 3-2 Ravens or the defending Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers, who are also 3-2.
They're not blowing teams out a la '07, but they're also not getting blown out. Their two losses are by a combined 10 points.
Sure, some healthy skepticism about the Patriots is warranted.
The defense, despite its statistical prowess, fails to generate a consistent pass rush. It is also susceptible at times to long drives like the 90- and 98-yard marches quarterback Kyle Orton led the Broncos on this past Sunday, in part because it doesn't make enough game-changing plays and doesn't have a dynamic player outside of Jerod Mayo.
But do you think Tennessee Titans fans, who watched their team post the NFL's best record last season and are now 0-5 entering Sunday's game against the Patriots, would trade places with their New England counterparts? Of course they would. A 3-2 record isn't a disaster.
When the Patriots won their three Super Bowl titles this decade, nobody worried about how they won and there was a certain pride taken in their find-a-way-to-win ethos.
Time has a way of distorting perception and reality.
Maybe the Foxborough Faithful need to take a good, hard, long look at those Pat Patriot retro duds the team will wear on Sunday and recall what a dud of a franchise this was not all that long ago and shed their sense of NFL entitlement.
Save the mawkish nostalgia for the red, white and blue throwback threads. Because 2007 is history.
Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at email@example.com