Through four games, the Patriots are 2-2. It’s just the third time in the Brady era that New England has gotten off to such a slow start, joining the 2003 and 2014 teams. Both those teams went on to win the Super Bowl, if that’s any consolation for Pats fans.
After yesterday’s defensive meltdown at the hands of the Carolina Panthers, I came to the sad realization that the Patriots have never had such an ineffective defense during the Brady era. Whether it was a big play through the air, or a bruising run for ten yards, the Panthers sucked the air out of the Gillette Stadium crowd on every one of their scoring drives (there were seven of those for Carolina on Sunday).
Costly penalties were also a major factor, the most significant one going against cornerback Stephon Gilmore. His pass interference call late in the fourth quarter allowed Carolina to extend what would become a game-winning drive, accentuated by Graham Gano’s win-clinching field goal from 48 yards out.
The Patriots have allowed 128 points through four games, second-worst in the NFL (they were saved from the cellar by the Indianapolis Colts, who have now surrendered 136 after a 46-18 Sunday night drubbing at the hands of the Seattle Seahawks). New England has played three home games and have given up an average of 36 points in each of those contests.
When one unit is this ineffective, it’s usually a one-way ticket to the couch for the postseason. However, as Tom Brady pointed out during his weekly appearance on WEEI’s Kirk & Callahan Show, the Patriots were often saved by a ruthless defense during his early years in the league.
“I was a part of our team, in the early 2000s, where we didn’t do anything on offense,” Brady said, when asked if the defense’s struggles were creating a locker room rift. “The defense never complained about that.”
He’s spot on. In 2003, the Patriots finished 14-2. They also won six games while scoring less than 20 points. There was a 9-3 win over Cleveland. Two 12-0 shutout victories over Dallas and Miami. A 19-13 overtime victory in Miami on a Brady touchdown pass to Troy Brown. The ’03 defense was stacked with veteran Pro Bowlers that knew how to handle pretty much anything in its path. Ty Law at cornerback. Tedy Bruschi and Willie McGinest at linebacker. Rodney Harrison at safety. Big Ted Washington stopping all running backs in his path. It takes a team to win, and that ’03 Patriots defense bailed the offense out on more than a few occasions.
At the quarter-mark of the 2017 season, the Patriots’ offense is just as dominant as the defense that headed a championship run 14 years ago. They’ve scored 32 points a game, all behind the fantastic play of their 40-year-old quarterback. Four games into the season, Tom Brady has thrown for 1,399 yards, while tossing ten touchdown passes to zero interceptions. He carries a QB rating of 116.6 and a total QBR of 76.8 heading into Thursday night’s matchup against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He’s on pace to have the best season ever by a quarterback over 40, and somehow, his team is 2-2, because the defensive unit just can’t make plays when needed.
The 2017 New England Patriots are at a crossroads. At 2-2, they now must travel to Tampa Bay for a date with Jameis Winston and the Buccaneers, who are more than capable of putting up serious points. Defensive coordinator Matt Patricia and Bill Belichick must find a way to get the defense playing smarter, faster, and tougher. If they can’t, the Patriots will find themselves under .500 through five games for the first time since 2001 (of course, they did win it all that year as well).