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This Patriots Defense Doesn’t Belong on a Super Bowl Contender

The Panthers exposed huge flaws for New England’s unit

Carolina Panthers v New England Patriots Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

It’s October, but that smell in the air is not pumpkin spice—it’s the rotting decay of the Patriots defense, and maybe their Super Bowl hopes, too.

OK, that’s an overreaction, but the Patriots defense looks like it doesn’t belong on a playoff team, let alone a Super Bowl contender. New England entered the day having surrendered 1,383 total yards and 7.1 yards per play, both worst in the league. The Pats were shredded by Alex Smith in the season opener in Week 1. In Week 3, they nearly lost to rookie Deshaun Watson and the Texans, and allowed 33 points before Tom Brady bailed the Pats out. New England’s game against Carolina represented a litmus test for whether the Pats’ abysmal defensive start was a sample size fluke or a legitimate concern. It turns out to be worthy of a quarter-season panic.

The Panthers beat the Pats on Sunday, 33-30, with a field goal as time expired. Cam Newton completed 22 of 29 passes for 316 yards, three touchdowns, and one interception, and a 130.8 rating, which is alarming considering Newton had only 566 yards and two touchdowns on the season coming into the game. All it took to reawaken Newton was a date with New England, as Newton is now the fourth quarterback in four games to throw for 300 passing yards against the Patriots. Earlier this week, Bill Belichick called Newton “Public Enemy No. 1,” but he may turn that label on his defensive coordinator, Matt Patricia, as Patricia’s unit looked lost the entire day. In the offseason, the Pats handed cornerback Stephon Gilmore a five-year, $65 million deal. They also managed to hang on to defensive backs Devin McCourty and Malcolm Butler to prevent the defense from becoming a sieve. Yet somehow in this play, Carolina’s no. 1 wide receiver was able to streak for nearly 10 yards before a defender even enters the camera frame.

Admittedly, we’ve been here before. In Week 4 of 2014, the Chiefs walloped New England on Monday Night Football to send them to 2-2, which prompted a reporter to ask Belichick whether the quarterback position would be “evaluated.” The Pats finished 12-4 and won the Super Bowl that year. The Pats are once again 2-2, and it seems foolish to question the power of the Dark Side this early in the season. But unlike 2014, this slow start can’t be turned around by getting a legendary quarterback back on track. The Pats need to turn around a unit that’s been arguably the worst through the first four games of the season. On behalf of the other 31 fan bases in the league, let’s hope they can’t.