Friday August 22nd, 2008

The Patriots haven't won a game since mid-January, Tom Brady has yet to play this preseason, and things are getting a little tense for the Team That Previously Could Not Lose. Making matters worse, New England just got embarrassed at Tampa Bay, on the very field it hopes to be playing on in February's Super Bowl.

But should Patriots fans be worried, or be chilling? Is this just the (yawn) meaninglessness of preseason, or could it portend the trouble that lays ahead in 2008 for Bill Belichick and his one-game-at-a-time bunch?

We give you all the reasons to be either concerned or cool about what's going down in Foxboro:

• Reason to worry: The Patriots' Super Bowl hopes rest ever so lightly on the state of Brady's sore right foot. Or on any other of his body parts that happen to be balky at any particular moment. Let's admit the obvious: Without Mr. Indispensable in the pocket, the Patriots are just another team in the AFC East. And maybe a second- or third-place one at that.

Have you seen New England's offense with reserve quarterbacks Matt Cassel, Kevin O'Connell and Matt Gutierrez running the show the past two weeks? Brutal. The three men-who-wouldn't-be-Tom have combined to complete 29-of-58 (50 percent) for 262 yards, with four interceptions and no touchdown passes. They've led 23 drives, and produced two touchdowns and four Stephen Gostkowski field goals. And Cassel had first-team receivers Randy Moss and Wes Welker at his disposal Sunday night in Tampa Bay, so don't tell me he was forced to play with his fellow scrubs.

Add it all up and it's enough to get Vinny Testaverde on speed dial. Let's not forget that the last time Belichick had to rely upon anyone but Brady to start a game at quarterback for New England, he was 5-13 in his Patriots tenure and fighting off talk that his job was in jeopardy. How much does Brady mean to his team? Everything. Those are the facts, Jack.

• Reason to chill: The Patriots are playing it ultra-cautious with Brady's foot because they can afford to and because they know they don't have much of a safety net behind him. It's entirely possible that New England could sit Brady the entire preseason schedule to ensure him being ready to go for the Sept. 7 opener against visiting Kansas City. Don't forget, the Patriots went the same route last year with Moss and his preseason hamstring injury and that one worked out OK.

The good news about Brady's sore foot is he has confirmed it's not the same ankle injury that plagued him in the two weeks leading up to the Super Bowl last winter. So we're not talking about a chronic, lingering issue here. At this point in his career, with the continuity that exists between him and his receivers this year, I'm confident Brady could roll out of bed on the morning of the season opener and play an efficient and productive game.

Exhibition game action, or no exhibition game action, Brady has made 127 consecutive starts when it matters, in the regular season and the playoffs. Let's let him miss one before the sky starts falling in Foxboro.

• Reason to worry: The machine-like Patriots may be on a 19-game regular-season winning streak dating to Week 15 of 2006, but the reality is they've lost the past three times they've taken the field since improving to 18-0 in last January's AFC title game. Losing can become a habit in this league just as easily as winning can, and you don't want to play around with your mojo too much lest it cruelly turn on you.

Is it possible New England's crushing Super Bowl loss to the upstart Giants punctured the sense of invincibility that had surrounded Belichick's team? Say what you will about the supposed Super Bowl loser syndrome, but seven of the last 10 teams to lose the big game didn't even make the playoffs the following season. That's not a trend to dismiss out of hand. Teams can struggle with the mental funk that a Super Bowl letdown creates, perhaps even the mentally tough Patriots. We know this: No team has ever had a more painful loss to recover from. When you're 18-0 and lose the last one, you're in uncharted waters the next season.

• Reason to chill: Yes, the Patriots have looked undeniably bad in going 0-2 this preseason. But it's just the preseason, and no head coach in the league plays these games less to win than Belichick, who considers the August schedule to be a necessary evil. He purposely takes a vanilla-as-possible approach on both offense and defense, and is maniacal about not giving the Patriots' regular-season opponents too much to work with in terms of their scouting. To make the deduction that because Tampa Bay sliced up New England's defense for 234 yards in the first half on Sunday, teams in the regular season will be able to do the same would be pure fallacy.

For some perspective, consider that New England went 2-2 in the preseason last year prior to its record-breaking 18-1 run. In fact, since 2004, New England's most recent Super Bowl-winning season, the Patriots have gone 1-3, 2-2, 2-2 and 2-2 in August (7-9 overall), before flipping the switch to on and rolling to a 60-15 (.800) mark in the regular season and playoffs thereafter. Can a team's preseason performance set the tone for the regular season? Yes. Has it done so in New England lately? Not by a long shot.

• Reason to worry: Even if the absence of Brady explains everything about the malaise so far on offense, No. 12 doesn't play defense. New England's tackling has been, to put it lightly, uninspired, and the execution on defense has been nowhere near the Patriots usual standards. Nobody wearing red, white and blue seems to be getting off blocks these days, and New England made Bucs journeyman quarterbacks Brian Griese and Luke McCown look Brady-esque in going a combined 16-of-20 for 123 yards and a touchdown pass in their little more than two quarters of action.

And did we mention Tampa Bay rushed for 114 yards and a touchdown on 19 first-half carries, an average gain of six yards per pop against New England's mostly first-team defense? In particular, Michael Bennett made the Patriots defense look bad, gaining 57 yards on just eight carries in the game, a 7.1-yard average that was highlighted by a 23-yard run. All told, four Bucs rushers had double-digit gains en route to Tampa Bay's 170-yard rushing night.

If that's where we're headed, what might the Chiefs and their Larry Johnson-led ground game do to New England in Week 1?

• Reason to chill: Any way you cut it, the Patriots defense looked sloppy at Tampa Bay. But keep in mind that New England didn't play a host of defensive starters in its preseason opening 16-15 home loss to Baltimore, so we're really only talking about a one-game sampling in terms of defensive shortcomings. And even against the Bucs, both starting outside linebacker Adalius Thomas and safety James Sanders, a potential starter, didn't see any action, watering down the first team's viability a bit.

While the injury situation in the secondary is again a concern -- when is it not in New England? -- it appears the Patriots dodged a potential bullet with the news that the leg injury suffered by second-year safety Brandon Merriweather at Tampa Bay shouldn't cost him anything more than the final two preseason games. And with last week's addition of veteran safety John Lynch, New England likely has enough depth to survive August and get to the regular season with a semblance of health in the defensive backfield.

On the brightest note of all this preseason in New England, rookie linebackers Jerod Mayo and Shawn Crable have added some much needed speed, athleticism and playmaking skills to that segment of the depth chart. With Mayo and Crable living up to expectations, the Patriots have addressed their most glaring defensive deficiency from last year.

• Reason to worry: The Patriots offensive line, besieged by the Giants in the Super Bowl, looked like it was still shell-shocked by the experience in New England's preseason opener against Baltimore. The Ravens sacked the Patriots' three quarterbacks a combined six times, and that was with New England starting 60 percent of its regular first-team unit.

We all know where a shaky offensive line could lead in New England. All you have to do is scroll back up top and re-read the section on how critical Brady's health is to his team's Super Bowl chances. After the Ravens game, the worry was that the Giants might have provided the rest of the league a blueprint for how to shut down the Patriots offense via the pass rush, exploiting New England's suddenly susceptible offensive line in the process.

• Reason to chill: Never mind. Playing the same line as the one that started against Baltimore, the Patriots gave up nary a sack at Tampa Bay. Not that it helped the quarterback play, mind you. But New England tightened up the gaps up front, reminding us that no team has a better reputation for correcting its mistakes from week-to-week than the Belichick-men.

Another big test, however, looms this week, because the Philadelphia Eagles will visit Gillette Stadium on Friday night for each team's "dress rehearsal'' third preseason game. Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson never met a blitz package he didn't like, and if New England's offensive line can handle that test, it might be well on its way to putting its Super Bowl nightmare to rest.

• Reason to worry: The Jets are better at guard, linebacker and defensive tackle, and they finally got themselves a quarterback who can win a big game in Brett Favre. The Bills are young, hungry and starting to believe they belong in the AFC playoff discussion. The Dolphins have The Tuna, and you know he's going to have the Fish playing a whole lot tougher than they did during last year's 1-15 fiasco.

As for the rest of the AFC, San Diego is hell-bent on avenging its two recent playoff losses to the Patriots, and Indy, Jacksonville and Tennessee aren't going to just drop off the radar screen in the tough AFC South. Could it be that the rest of the conference has significantly closed the gap on the NFL's reigning dynasty?

• Reason to chill: Teams in the AFC East don't exactly have what you would call a murderer's row to plow through this season. The Patriots' home schedule includes all of one team that made the '07 playoffs, and that's Pittsburgh in Week 13. Everybody knows the Patriots will always beat the Steelers, even if the game were held somewhere along the perpetually under-construction Pennsylvania Turnpike.

Try as I might, I can't get the mere mortal version of the Patriots to take a tumble any lower than 12-4. True, it's not the stuff that will get Don Shula and the boys all cranky again, but it should be plenty enough to win the division by two games or so. I'll give you that New England could lose in Week 2 to the fired-up and Favre-led Jets, at San Diego in Week 6, at Indianapolis in Week 9, and maybe in a rainstorm at Seattle in Week 14. But that's about it. So relax, New England. Your beloved team will be nobody's Patsies.

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