New England Patriots: At 2-2, no need to push panic button

Alarm bells are sounding loudly in Foxborough after latest defeat.

NFL: New England Patriots at Kansas City Chiefs
New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) watches the game on the sidelines during the second half against the Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium. The Chiefs won 41-14. (Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports)

(C+P) — What a difference a week makes.

There are going to be a variety of opinions written about the New England Patriots this week after being humiliated 41-14 by the Kansas City Chiefs on Monday. Some will proclaim it as the night the dynasty ended. Others will turn a blind eye, assuming that head coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady will “just figure out it.” The truth is obviously somewhere in the middle, but how close to which side remains a mystery.

It’s difficult to pinpoint where New England is on that map because of its incredible success over the past 15 years. The fact that the margin of defeat (27 points) is the second worst in the Belichick-Brady era speaks to that consistency. In that same time period (since 2001), the Buccaneers have had 11 such losses. Jacksonville owns two defeats this season of 27 points or more.

It almost prevents an accurate interpretation of the struggles the Patriots clearly are going through. However, if you strip the minuteman soldiers off the helmets, and evaluate personnel performance player-by-player, there are more negatives than positives through the first four weeks.

At 37 years old it remains clear that Brady cannot carry a team by himself anymore. Void of any quality at wide receiver, Brady is struggling to move the ball down the field. Although the offensive line held up for most of the game against the Chiefs pass rush, the makeshift line had an affect on Brady’s timing. The Patriots made some in-game adjustments up front, but nothing worked.

New England Patriots backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo (10) drops back to pass against the Kansas City Chiefs in the second half at Arrowhead Stadium. Kansas City won 41-14. (John Rieger-USA TODAY Sports)
New England Patriots backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo (10) drops back to pass against the Kansas City Chiefs in the second half at Arrowhead Stadium. Kansas City won 41-14. (John Rieger-USA TODAY Sports)

Second-round rookie Jimmy Garoppolo was at the right place at the right time to make his debut amidst the disaster. Trailing 41-7 midway through the fourth quarter, the Eastern Illinois product came in against soft coverage, made quick throws on time and led New England to a touchdown. Whether it was his cameo appearance or Brady’s struggles, the effor led to this hillariously awkward moment in the postgame press conference.

Although Brady (14 of 23,159 yards) was inconsistent with his throws and decision making, the offense wasn’t a complete disaster Monday. Field position wasn’t on New England’s side – its first six drives began at its own 10, 20, 20, 9, 20 and 1-yard lines. The Patriots also lost the turnover battle 3-0, including a virtual 14 points given to Kansas City on a pick-six and a strip-sack. They averaged 5.9 yards per play, compared to 6.7 for the Chiefs. New England converted just 2 of 9 third down attempts while the hosts went 7 of 12. Brady dropped back to pass 25 times while Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley got 13 rush attempts. That ratio has to flip if New England is going to win in 2014.

The other side of the ball is the bigger reason for immediate concern, because the defense had high expectations heading into the season. Nothing worked for the Patriots defense against a Chiefs offense that was ranked 24th in DVOA after three weeks. For what it’s worth, New England had the top-ranked defense entering Week 4 as well.

After playing pretty solid for the first three weeks, the Patriots defense was shredded in just about every way Monday.

Alex Smith completed 20 of 26 passes for 248 yards and three touchdowns for Kansas City. The running game was even more effective, as running back tandem Jamaal Charles and Knile Davis combined for 199 yards on 34 carries. In total, the Chiefs ran 15 plays that went 10 yards or more. The 443 yards the Chiefs amassed were over 100 more than any of its previous three games. All three levels of the Patriots defense had major struggles Monday.

How did this happen to the Patriots’ defense that has talent all over the field? Can it be fixed?

The next six weeks will be a true test of adversity for Belichick, Brady and Co. New England has four of its next five games at home, a ripe opportunity to turn the season around. Few of those games are easy, however, including Sunday night’s home game with Cincinnati. Las Vegas has the line set as a pickem, so all is not lost in Foxborough. Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton is still mediocre (middle of the pack in most stats), and the New England defense could get back on track if Darrelle Revis can slow down A.J .Green.

But this is far from a guarantee and it’s time to evaluate New England on the field just like every other team. Gone are the record-breaking offenses and pulverizing defenses that led the group to five Super Bowl appearances since 2001. The Patriots have a below average offense (for now) and a defense that could be above average-to-elite if they can gel during the season.

Despite all of their problems, the Patriots are still the perhaps overwhelming favorites to win the AFC East for the 12th time in 14 seasons. A backhanded compliment of sorts, but the Jets, Bills and Dolphins are all a mess at quarterback and have issues elsewhere. New England is locked in a three-way tie at 2-2 for first place and should stay in the race even as its schedule gets more difficult.

The concern level after four weeks has to be at moderate. There is a chance the season spirals out of control with a declining Brady and an underachieving defense, but it’s equally as likely that Belichick dials the time machine and the effortlessly effective Patriots return on both sides of the ball.

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