Second-place Patriots are in bizarro territory to start the 2017 NFL season

Foxborough, MA 10/01/17   New England Patriots Malcolm Butler yells at teammate Stephon Gilmore after Carolina Panthers Kelvin Benjamin 39-yard reception to start the fourth quarter at Gillette Stadium. (Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff)
Malcolm Butler yells at teammate Stephon Gilmore after Carolina's Kelvin Benjamin grabs a 39-yard reception to start the fourth quarter. –Matthew J. Lee/Boston Globe

COMMENTARY

There are still three weeks or so until the second season of “Stranger Things” premieres, and yet here we are, already mired in the Upside Down version of the NFL.

It’s a sinister reflection of the norm whenever the Buffalo Bills are atop the AFC East, and even more bizarre when the defending Super Bowl champions find themselves tied for second with the New York Jets, a team that is supposed to tanking for next spring’s No. 1 pick.

Therefore, is it time to shed even a milliliter of concern that the New England Patriots, in the discussion only three weeks ago to possibly concept a 19-0 season, might just face stiff competition in their division for one of the only times in almost two decades?

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Nope.

Yet, here we are after four games of the 2017 season with the Patriots sporting a record of 2-2 that should just as easily be 1-3 thanks to a porous defense that ranks among the worst Bill Belichick has ever brought to Foxborough. In allowing a whopping 456.8 yards per game, Matt Patricia’s defensive unit ranks dead-last in the NFL, a remarkable 60 yards per game more than the Indianapolis Colts, who take the not-so-prized 31st slot. It’s also an average of nearly 200 yards more than the Denver Broncos (260.8), best in the NFL.

The Patriots haven’t been just bad on defense. They have been historically bad.

But maybe that’s good news.

Yes, through the first four games of a season, the 2017 Patriots already rank as the eighth-worst defense in NFL history in terms of total yardage (1,827). Last year’s playoff-bound Oakland Raiders are No. 6 with 1,840 yards allowed over the first quarter of the season. The 2005 San Francisco 49ers, who finished 4-12, are No. 3 on the list with 1,894 yards allowed.

But the spot for the worst team over the first four games belongs to none other than the 2011 New England Patriots (1,910), who only used that deficiency to make it as far as another miracle catch by a New York Giant wide receiver from winning the Super Bowl.

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In other words, talk to you in December, Buffalo.

The Patriots’ problems on defense are legitimate issues. Stephon Gilmore wasn’t complaining so much about “communication” on the first day of free agency, when the former Buffalo cornerback cashed in with a $65 million contract with New England. Dont’a Hightower returned to the field for Sunday’s loss to the Carolina Panthers, but was unable to add any sort of cohesion to the mess surrounding him. That’s left Tom Brady and Co. with the onus of making weekly comebacks a status quo. No big deal. At least, not for the last two Sundays.

The Houston Texans bungled their last shot last weekend. Gilmore did the honors for the Panthers on Sunday with a hands to the face penalty.

Ugly? Sure. As ugly as we can remember it being around here.

Concerning? Uh….no.
“It takes time with everything,” said cornerback Malcolm Butler, who came up with his first (gift) interception of the season against Carolina. “But there needs to be a sense of urgency right now because a quarter of the season is gone away already and it’s time to pick it up. It’s just time to pick it up.”

After their first four games, those 2011 Patriots were 3-1, their lone loss coming against the Bills, who also started their campaign with three wins. Those Patriots would lose twice in back-to-back games against the Pittsburgh Steelers (25-17) and Giants (24-20) to post an unremarkable 5-3 mark before whipping off eight straight wins to finish 13-3 and earn the top playoff seed in the AFC.

The Bills finished 6-10.

To expect anything different would be shedding your state-issued layer of Patriots preponderate far too easily.

“Just being here, especially on defense; in my five years here, we’ve prided ourselves on being a smart and tough football team, especially defensively,” safety Duron Harmon said. “We’re just not doing it. It’s frustrating because we do put a lot of work into it, but like I said obviously it’s not enough. We need to go really look at ourselves…and we need to come in with a better attitude tomorrow. An attitude to work and do more.”

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Blame Gilmore. Blame Patricia. Blame Belichick.

They all share a fraction of the criticism.

But if they celebrate small victories after one-quarter of the season in places like Buffalo, where sustained hope lasts about as long as a preschool supply of bubbles, how concerned should you really be about the deficiencies of a superior team?

In a division where the Patriots have yet to play Jay Cutler, Tyrod Taylor, and Josh McCown each twice, it’s not going out on a limb to ease anxiety with the conviction that the Patriots still control the East.

They always manage to figure this stuff out, no matter how ghastly it’s looked thus far.

The Patriots will win the East. The Bills will finish 5-11. The Jets will eventually battle the 49ers and the — ha!— 0-4 Giants for the worst record in the NFL. Jay Cutler will further delve the Miami Dolphins into a professional laughingstock.

Equilibrium will eventually return.

Oh, and the top defense in terms of yards allowed six seasons ago? The Jacksonville Jaguars, who allowed only 4,149 yards over the campaign, an average of 259.3 per game. The Patriots finished second-to-last (Saints) with 6,848, an average of 428.0 per game.

The 2011 Jaguars finished 5-11.

The Patriots are just fine.