NEW ORLEANS -- The Superdome was the birthplace of the Patriots' mystique and last night it may have served as its final resting place.
The Patriots are still going to be a playoff team. They're still going to win the AFC East. They're still going to be mentioned as a possible Super Bowl contender, but the fear factor for teams facing them is gone -- just like most of the players who created it.
"They don't have Richard Seymour anymore. They don't have the Vrabels, the Bruschis, the Harrisons. It's not the same defense that you have seen," said Saints tight end Jeremy Shockey. "They have Mayweather [sic]. He is a very good player. They're a good football team and they show a lot of resolve. I'm sure they'll win a lot of games this year."
Shockey meant Patriots safety Brandon Meriweather, and he wasn't trying to disrespect Meriweather by confusing his name with that of boxer Floyd Mayweather, but that's how little of an impression the Patriots left on the Saints.
The last time the Patriots played at the Superdome prior to last night, Tom Brady and Bill Belichick celebrated an improbable victory in Super Bowl XXXVI, confetti raining down on their heads. The only thing falling down around the Patriots last night was their argument to being among the NFL's elite teams this season.
On offense, defense and special teams, the 7-4 Patriots simply made too many errors, gave up too many big plays, and made too few plays to beat the 11-0 Saints. Forget the final score, 38-17, this game wasn't that close.
The Showdown in the Superdome became a chance for the Saints to show off in front of a national television audience and show the Patriots that the aura of superiority they carried for so much of this decade simply can't be passed on to a new set of players like a pair of cufflinks.
Last night there were only four Patriots who were with the team when it won its first Super Bowl at the Superdome in 2002 -- Brady, left tackle Matt Light, running back Kevin Faulk and right guard Stephen Neal, who was inactive for Super Bowl XXXVI. There were only 11 players in uniform who have won a Super Bowl ring with the Patriots.
There is a line in the movie "The Matrix" where the character of Morpheus tells the cyber savior Neo that there is a difference between knowing the path and walking the path. Well, there is a difference between knowing the Patriot Way and playing the Patriot Way.
You keep expecting the Patriots to win games like last night because they always have in the past, but what we've learned this season -- and again last night -- is it's just not that simple.
The Patriot Way used to mean shutting down high-powered offenses, now it's just trying to keep up with them.
Drew Brees carved up New England's' re-tooled defense like a Thanksgiving turkey, completing 18 of 23 passes for 371 yards and five touchdowns. He reached the "perfect" QB rating of 158.3. He had two receivers, Marques Colston (four catches for 121 yards and a TD) and Devery Henderson (three catches for 116 yards and a score) who averaged more than 30 yards per catch.
Resistance wasn't just futile for the Patriots defense. It was nearly nonexistent.
The average time of the Saints' four touchdown drives was just 2 minutes and 44 seconds. New Orleans racked up 480 yards of offense and had seven plays of 25 yards or more. Entering the game, the Patriots had allowed 15 plays of 25 yards or more in 10 games.
But what was more disheartening than watching a defense that a lot of people, myself included, believed had shown signs of evolving into a championship caliber unit, be picked apart like a beignet was the Patriots downright un-Patriotic play in all three phrases of the game, from poor throws to busted coverages to missed field goals.
When was the last time the Patriots simply imploded under the weight of their own mistakes and got rolled like a cheap rug in a big-time game?
Near the end of the first quarter, Brady, who failed to throw a touchdown pass for the first time since Week 2 against the Jets and had his 300-yard games streak snapped at five, tried to force a ball to Randy Moss on the run that was intercepted by Mike McKenzie. The Saints turned that interception into a touchdown to take a 10-7 lead on an 18-yard screen pass to Pierre Thomas.
On the Saints' next possession it got worse. With cornerback Jonathan Wilhite blitzing off the corner, Meriweather busted the coverage, allowing the player Wilhite had lined up over, Henderson, to be uncovered on the easiest 75-yard touchdown pass of Brees's career.
"We had several blown coverages defensively that they took advantage of -- just enormous mistakes on our part and they turned into huge plays," said Belichick. "You can’t make those kinds of mistakes against a good football team and we made them. We made too many of them."
So, the Patriots left New Orleans without a signature win this season, without a real road win and without an identity 11 games into the season.
Saints fans have a repetitive rallying cry that poses a simple, if grammatically incorrect question: "Who Dat?"
We don't know who the 2009 Patriots are yet -- that will be partially determined over the final five games of the season -- but we know who they are not right now, which is one of the elite teams in the NFL.
"We obviously have a lot of work to do to compete with a team of that caliber," said Belichick.
Since 2001, the Patriots have been a team "of that caliber." Now this group of Patriots has to prove it still is.