By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
FOXBORO (CBS) — Three times this season the Patriots have suited up on their home field, a place where they’ve been damn near invincible since the building opened 15 years ago. Yet not once in those three contests did the Patriots resemble the Patriots for a full 60 minutes.
And after another incomplete effort on Sunday afternoon against the Carolina Panthers, the 2017 Patriots now have a 1-2 home record to show for it.
You get the sense, through four weeks of the season, that something’s missing.
And at the current moment, they don’t seem to have an avenue for any sort of quick solution.
The easy and most obvious area of concern is the defense. And certainly, when a Panthers team that entered Sunday averaging 277 yards and 15 points per game can waltz into Foxboro and march for 444 yards en route to 33 points, the problems there are clear for all to see. When Fozzy Whittaker has an entire half of a football field to work with on his way into the end zone, and when the 6-foot-5 Kelvin Benjamin is left unaccounted for in the middle of the field, it’s easy to diagnose the team’s most glaring issue.
Yet after the 33-30 loss to Carolina, it does feel like more than just that. The offense, potent though it may be, converted just 50 percent of its third down attempts (7-for-14). That included an offensive pass interference penalty on Danny Amendola, which negated a third-down conversion and led to a punt.
Special teams play — always a staple of a Bill Belichick-coached football team — was imperfect, as Jonathan Jones was penalized for interfering with the catch of a punt. That penalty gave the Panthers 15 free yards on what turned out to be a touchdown drive.
Defensively, even if the Patriots may be lacking some talent in the front seven, there’s still no explanation for the complete and utter breakdowns that have become routine this season and showed up in a big way against Carolina.
At this point, it’s already too late in the season to be discussing an imaginary “Super Bowl hangover” or a struggle to live up to the 19-0 expectations placed upon this team all summer. It’s too late to simply say that the new players are taking time to acclimate to the system.
It’s October now, and the Patriots are what they are. And right now, that’s an average football team.
(If you were to take away their Hall of Fame quarterback who’s playing out of his mind at age 40, they’re much worse.)
“I wouldn’t even say anybody’s new anymore,” defensive captain Devin McCourty said. “We’ve been here since April, so it’s tough to still be talking about new guys and this guy’s gone, and honestly it doesn’t matter. I think we’ve all played together long enough — you say four games, but we’ve also played preseason games, we’ve had practices against other teams where we’re really straining communication, we’re practicing with loud music where we gotta signal, we do all that stuff here. We’re just not playing well, it’s not showing up on Sunday.”
Too often over the years, it’s been the visiting team that committed the back-breaking penalty. On Sunday, it was Stephon Gilmore.
So many times, it’s been the Patriots who carried themselves with a distinct level of swagger on this turf. On Sunday, Cam Newton looked like a kid at a carnival as he had his best game since Week 17 of his MVP season in 2015.
“I never have fear,” said third-year wideout Devin Funchess, who recorded his first career two-touchdown game. “We never have fear.”
And given the way the Patriots have looked on their home turf, the next team to come in will have no fear, either. (If you’re looking ahead, that team will be the Atlanta Falcons, who likely might enter Foxboro with a reason or two to lay a whooping on the Patriots.)
Again, it wasn’t just the defense getting outmatched physically. It was the defense getting outcoached, and it was the defense lacking discipline. These are things that just don’t happen on teams coached by Bill Belichick, yet between Alex Smith looking like Dan Marino, and Deshaun Watson looking like Cam Newton, and Cam Newton himself once again finally looking like Cam Newton, the Patriots can’t afford to be the less-disciplined team. The margin of error is too infinitesimal.
And though Tom Brady pulled a rabbit out of his hat to salvage a win against Houston last week, relying on the offense to be perfect is not a sustainable path to success for the Patriots — the team that has stood alone in the NFL when it comes to sustained success since 2001.
As must be stated through just four weeks, the Patriots are not buried. Far from it. Their offense remains one of the most explosive, dynamic units in the entire league, and the team has weathered slow starts in years past. The 2014 season was the best example of that, but they also made it to an AFC title game in 2012 despite a 1-2 start. The 2011 team made the Super Bowl despite doing three things that Patriots teams never do in the regular season: lose coming off a bye, lose at home, and lose in back-to-back weeks.
Plus, looking around the AFC, the Chiefs are the lone “powerhouse.” The conference remains wide open.
So anyone trying to close the door on the 2017 Patriots at this moment is someone who’s a bit too eager. The shovel, for now, should remain in the closet.
Nevertheless, there remains a distinct feeling that this team, right now at this moment, is quite ordinary. In New England, such a reality is simply strange to witness. And with very little time to correct some major issues on this short week leading up to a Thursday night road contest in Tampa Bay, the Patriots are at risk of having a losing record through five weeks of the season for the first time since the 2001 season.
The Patriots just don’t feel like the Patriots, and a simple solution seems difficult to find.