By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
FOXBORO (CBS) — When the Patriots’ schedule was released last spring, there was some thought that New England could enter the much-hyped Week 4 game against Tom Brady and the Bucs with a 2-1 record. Possibly even a 3-0 record.
And though they fumbled away Week 1’s game against Miami, the expectation to keep a winning record intact after Sunday’s date with the Saints still seemed reasonable.
And through 25 or so minutes of football, it was still possible.
Then things went sideways.
It got ugly.
And the Patriots are now 1-2.
This one was marked by an almost nonexistent first half for the Patriots’ offense, followed by a pair of mistakes that proved extremely costly in the 28-13 Saints win.
The first gaffe came with just under three minutes to play in the first half, with New Orleans leading 7-0. Rookie quarterback Mac Jones, facing heavy pressure for the umpteenth time of the game, released a pass while getting hit by linebacker Kaden Elliss. The resulting floater was picked and returned to the 9-yard line; Jameis Winston then pulled off a damn miracle to complete a touchdown on third-and-goal to put the Saints up 14-3. (A defensive holding penalty on New England would’ve given the Saints a fresh set of downs had that pass fallen incomplete or if Winston had been sacked.)
— New Orleans Saints (@Saints) September 26, 2021
The Patriots’ offense did respond with a competent two-minute drill before halftime, driving to the Saints’ 22-yard line … before Hunter Henry jumped the gun and took a false start penalty on fourth-and-1. The Patriots settled for a field goal.
That was the type of mistake that visiting teams all too often made when playing under the shadow of the Super Bowl banners in Foxboro. For a calendar year now, it’s more often than not been the Patriots making those critical blunders.
The 14-3 deficit was a bit dispiriting for the 68,000 or so fans in attendance, but an 11-point comeback was manageable, especially with an emotional boost from the ceremony honoring No. 11 at halftime, and especially with a Winston interception having to come at some point in the game.
Instead of getting that pick, though, the Patriots threw that pick. Jones’ pass to Jonnu Smith on the first play of the second half was a bit too far in front of the tight end. Smith tried to reach and make the pass but ended up tossing the ball up into the air, essentially alley-ooping Maclolm Jenkins for a walk-in pick-six.
— New Orleans Saints (@Saints) September 26, 2021
The Saints led 21-3. In a span of three minutes, a winnable game turned ugly for the home team.
The Patriots did show some signs of life in the fourth quarter, with Jones rushing for 12 yards before lobbing up a jump ball for Kendrick Bourne. The receiver made the catch and shed his defender before reaching the ball around the pylon, and the PAT that followed cut the Saints’ lead to eight points.
Now in a one-possession game with plenty of time left, the Patriots just needed a stop. Everyone in the building recognized that and responded properly by getting loud when the Saints faced a third-and-7 at their own 28-yard line with 8:31 left in the football game. The fans got so loud that the Saints had to burn a timeout just to get their play right.
Coming out of that timeout, with a chance to make the play of the game, the Patriots’ defense … didn’t pressure Winston at all, and allowed Deonte Harris to get open on the right sideline for a gain of 13 yards.
That conversion — which might as well have been run against air — kick-started a suffocating scoring drive for New Orleans, which chewed up 6:45, was capped by a Taysom Hill touchdown run, and sucked the life out of Gillette Stadium.
When factoring in the defense’s inability to stop Miami after Damien Harris’ fumble in Week 1, it marks the second time in as many home games that the New England defense couldn’t get the ball back to the offense to give the team a chance to mount a late scoring drive to tie or win.
As a result, the Patriots are now 0-2 at home. Life surely has changed in a hurry in New England, where the Patriots went 11 years without losing more than two games at home. It’s fitting, then, for Brady to be the one visiting Gillette next weekend with the chance to give the Patriots a losing record at home since his departure.
Given the offseason the Patriots had in free agency and the draft, there was some well-founded belief that last year was going to be the blip, that this year would get them back where everyone in this region expects them to be — if not at a true championship level, then at least as a playoff team that could make some sort of run in January. Through three weeks, though, it’s looking a lot more like a continuation of last year than anything else.
The outlook from here is … not great. While the 7-9 season a year ago provided a healthy dose of reality to the region, the idea was that with nearly $160 million spent in free agency and with an impressive first-round quarterback entering the equation, things would and should be different this season.
Through three weeks, it’s been worse, with a victory against the perpetually moribund Jets providing the lone notch in the W column for the Patriots, along with a pair of winnable games that have been kicked away with turnovers.
On the one hand, they kinda-sorta played well enough to win those two home games. On the other, they lost both.
Now they’re set to welcome back Tom Brady, reigning Super Bowl MVP, along with the Buccaneers, for all the world to see on Sunday Night Football.
If it looked ugly on Sunday, it might get a whole lot worse come next weekend. After that showing vs. the Saints, it’s difficult to feel any differently.