Well, that was quite a hideous bit of irony, an aggravating plot twist that reminded us not only of who the Patriots used to be but who they are in danger of becoming.
Bill Belichick's Patriots blundered away a 13-point fourth-quarter lead Sunday in a 24-23 loss to the tough, flawed Seattle Seahawks. They did it in a manner that has become all too familiar in the recent seasons of this mostly glorious era, whether you're recalling the two painful Super Bowl losses or the three losses by a total of four points this season. They failed to close.
Until recently, that was not something we'd have even considered to be a characteristic of a Bill Belichick/Tom Brady-helmed team, let alone a troubling recurring defect. The first true instance of it came in the 2006 AFC Championship game against the Colts, and I'll spare you the details since you surely do not need or want any reminder.
Of course, this season, it seems like reminders of this curious problem are coming roughly every other Sunday. Whether it's the lack of a killer instinct, the absence of a single cornerback with a functioning GPS system, or various somethings in between, the Patriots struggle far too often to choke out an opponent when they have it by the throat.
In Week 2, they held a third-quarter lead at home against Arizona and lost. In Week 3, they held a 9-point fourth-quarter lead at Baltimore and lost. Sunday, they led 23-10 with just over nine minutes to play, and yet it somehow ended with Pete Carroll jumping around in victory like a delirious jacked-and-pumped fool and Seahawks defensive back Richard Sherman taunting Tom Brady, who was left with no comeback, verbal or otherwise.
The most frustrating aspect of the loss for those of us -- ahem -- who said they'd never lose to a Pete Carroll team is that they lost to a Pete Carroll team pretty much in the way they habitually lost when he was the well-meaning but overmatched head coach here from 1997-99. The offense became one-dimensional (Brady flung it a Bledsoeian 58 times Sunday) because the run was increasingly ineffective (Stevan Ridley had 16 yards on seven fourth-quarter carries). There were dumb penalties (Brady was twice called for intentional grounding, once heaving one through Dan Connolly's five-hole) and inexcusable mistakes (failing to score during a pair of trips inside the 10, going 1 for 6 in the red zone, terrible clock management at the end of the first half that cost them three points).
All that was missing all that was missing from the full Pete Carroll Flashback Experience was Terry Glenn hamstring injury and a Chris Canty dance recital after giving up 11 yards on third and 10.
The Patriots' pass defense at least had the dignity not to break out "Rump Shaker'' every time rookie Russell Wilson, the 30th-ranked passer in the league entering the game, rolled out, let it fly (he completed 16 passes for 293 yards), and jogged the 40 or so yards to the new line of scrimmage. But otherwise, they were an embarrassment, and with the chronic regression of player after player under the watch of Belichick, Matt Patricia, and Josh Boyer, maybe it's time for desperate measures. That's right, I'm saying that maybe it is time for Belichick to mend fences with Eric Mangini, rescue him from the personal, unthinkable hell of sitting opposite Skip Bayless on ESPN, and bring back someone who managed to coach up the likes of Hank Poteat, Randall Gay, Troy Brown and Earthwind Moreland into serviceable defensive backs. I'm only half-kidding, and that also goes for the suggestion that they should pull Ty Law off the CSNNE studio to become the nickel back. At least he'd know where to be. Most of these guys -- and let's include Kyle Arrington, who has actually been worse than the maligned Devin McCourty -- have worse ball skills than Ian Rapoport.
A Patriots fan can't help but have serious defensive back envy watching the Seahawks. Kam Chancellor was chosen 133d overall in 2010 -- 106 spots after the regressing McCourty, who isn't bad for someone who apparently can't turn his head in either direction. Richard Sherman, who talks a lot and more than backs it up, was chosen 155th last year -- 122 spots after Ras-I Dowling, who barely sees the field. Earl Thomas is what you once hoped Patrick Chung or the departed Brandon Merriweather might be. Sunday was a reminder of how much of a futile daydream that is.
Seattle's defense is legitimately ferocious -- they hadn't given up a 300-yard passer, 100-yard rusher or 100-yard receiver until Sunday, when Brady and the fearless Wes Welker broke two of those three barriers -- and while I'll never question Brady's toughness, let's just say there was more evidence submitted Sunday in the case of whether he's more wary of the pass rush than he was pre-Bernard Pollard. Brady still has better-than-average pocket presence, but sometimes he bobs and weaves when there are more shadows than pass rushers. I'm pretty sure that on one second-half sack, Nate Solder got credit for the tackle.
That considered, the biggest play of the game for the Seahawks might not have been anything their quarterback did, but something they did to the quarterback. Brady was drilled in the chin on the final play of the fourth quarter, drawing an unnecessary roughness flag on the Seahawks' Jason Jones. The 15-yards were more than worth it. The numbers suggest that after that blow, Brady was playing through clouds -- he completed just 5 of 13 passes in the fourth quarter for 81 yards, and 15 of those game on the final 4th-and-17 completion to Welker. He was called for grounding, took a sack, and threw an interception inside the 10 in that quarter. It was if the footage CBS showed of Scott Secules somehow transferred to Brady. He seemed fine after the game, but for whatever reason he clearly was not himself during its final 15 minutes.
With the reset button having been hit on the AFC East -- everyone is 3-3 -- and the ain't-dead-yet Jets lurking, next Sunday will bring the ultimate test of the growing notion that the best offense against the Patriots is to throw the ball long and far and wait for something good to happen. The matchup of the resistible something-less-than-a-force -- Mark Sanchez's arm -- against the movable object known as the Patriots defensive backfield should be a fascinating battle of ineptitude. But looking ahead is for later in the week. Right now, we're left with an increasingly familiar lament:
How many more victories would the Patriots have in recent seasons if games were just 55 minutes long?
About Touching All The Bases
Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.