Let’s face it, the Patriots just aren’t good anymore

Lack of focus has come to define the 2018 New England Patriots.

Bill Belichick
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick heads off the field following his team's 17-10 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. –Jim Davis/The Boston Globe

COMMENTARY

The Patriots have made this easy.

The season-long search for the 2018 team’s character has been a frustrating uncertainty. This is a team, after all, that has beaten both teams seeded ahead of it (Chiefs, Texans) in the AFC playoff picture. It’s also a team that went just 3-5 on the road.

It’s an ambiguity that left some grasping at hopeful fruit just a few weeks back when the Patriots delivered their most-most-complete effort of the season during a 24-10 win over the Minnesota Vikings. Finally, perhaps, the New England Patriots were emerging back into the perennial force we assume them to be, shutting down one of the NFC’s top teams with a defensive effort that at least delivered encouragement.

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But that isn’t who these Patriots are.

No, it’s finally safe to assume that these Patriots are the team that we saw over the last two weeks; an unfocused, mistake-filled squad with an aging, crippled offense and a major flaw in its defensive presence on the ground.

Trent Dilfer might finally be right, more than four years after making his much-ridiculed assessment of the would-be Super Bowl champs that season on ESPN.

“Let’s face it, they’re not good anymore.”

It’s a lot less controversial of a statement than it was in 2014.

Mostly because it’s true.

The Patriots have made this easy to assume that they’re not going to be playing in a third-straight Super Bowl this season. They have helped create the fluent argument that the dynasty, errantly considered finished so many times over the years, may indeed, finally, be at its epilogue.

What sense of encouragement can possibly rise from the fact that this team has dropped back-to-back games in December for the first time since 2002? How can one deem any level of leadership and focus after watching the least-penalized team in the NFL get called for 14 in its 17-10 loss to the Steelers Sunday night? How can anyone have watched Julian Edelman, Josh Gordon, and James White do their best impressions of Wes Welker and argue that the Patriots, who have one road win outside of Buffalo and the Meadowlands, might be OK traveling to Kansas City or Houston come postseason.

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If what happened in Miami was to be considered merely a miraculous collapse, then what took place in Pittsburgh one week later was a defining mess.

We know who the Patriots are now, a confused assortment of disarray.

Let’s face it. They’re not good anymore.

Normally, such an assessment has been made over the years with a heaping serving of yolk deposited on the critic’s face. They were done in 2014 until they were onto Cincinnati. They were presumed done in 2017, until the Jacksonville Jaguars barfed all over themselves in the AFC title game. They’ve been declared old, dysfunctional, and at various crossroads after slow Septembers failed to give them a head start, but always with the confidence that resulted in a Bill Belichick and Tom Brady-led team figuring it all out come November and December.

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Instead, they have seemingly figured nothing out.

“Obviously, we aren’t playing well enough to win, and it comes in a lot of different ways, turnovers, and just missed opportunities,” Brady said after completing 25 of 36 passes for 279 yards against the Steelers. “That’s what it comes down to. Too many plays, opportunities that we could do something with it, and we just don’t. It’s football. We wish outcomes were different. Obviously, this week, last week. We just have to get back to work.”

This was the fourth time in eight games that Brady had a quarterback rating (89.9) under 90 on the road this season. But for the most part, the quarterback was at least good enough to win the game, if not for key drops by Edelman, Gordon, and White. And while Patriots toadies will argue that a questionable holding call was what cut the Patriots short on their previous drive, Brady did himself no favors with what might be considered the worst interception he’s ever thrown.

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“Yeah, I was just trying to flick it out of bounds,” he said. “I didn’t want to take the sack. It shouldn’t happen.”

No. It shouldn’t have.

But things that shouldn’t take place seem to be happening more and more with this Patriots team.

“They say penalties in the red area are pretty much the difference in a game, so we need to do a better job there,” Belichick said. “We have to eliminate them. It’s too many.”

If we’re going to use the Patriots’ lack of penalties heading into December as some sort of characteristic of coaching and discipline, then it’s only fair to call what took place at Heinz Field a collapse of order. In a game that the Steelers did everything in their stupidity-enabled power to hand to the Patriots, New England blundered each and every chance whether it was a false start, holding, or even delay of game on a field goal attempt. Those aren’t the Patriots you’re used to.

But it is who these Patriots are.

The run defense is in shambles, Rob Gronkowski is a ghost, Brady’s decision-making has never seemed more questionable, and, as if you needed something else, a trio of players aided the cause with significant drops. Whatever. None of that might matter come Buffalo next Sunday at Gillette.

But the complete lack of focus that showed itself in a pivotal late-season game? It has come to define the 2018 New England Patriots.

Belichick and company always seem to fix the on-field flaws in time. It’s when the problems run characteristically that issues fester.

This is who they are.

For a team that continually defies criticism, the Patriots made this an easy call for once.

Not good enough.

Not good anymore.

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