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How Soon Is Too Soon to Panic About the Patriots?

After last week’s blowout loss to the Chiefs, alarm bells are already ringing in New England. Then again, worrying about the Pats defense is an autumn tradition in the Northeast. More often than not, it all ends with a Super Bowl. Plus, more thoughts ahead of Week 2.

Collage of Bill Belichick, Dont’a Hightower, and Matt Patricia of the New England Patriots Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Last week, the Patriots defense made Alex Smith look like Drew Brees. This week, it’ll be much harder: they play the actual Drew Brees.

There are two ways to feel ahead of Sunday’s Saints-Patriots game, and the way you feel probably depends on how much you hate the Patriots.

The first: The AFC East is wide open, and the Dolphins, Bills, or Jets could capitalize on a weak defense and a generally discombobulated team. Well at least the Dolphins or Bills.

The second — and probably correct — way to feel: The Patriots have gone through all of this before. Aside from the Taken franchise, there are few more predictable outcomes than what comes after any “Patriots in crisis” speculation. And that remains true even if they lose this weekend. It is not panic time in New England because it is never panic time in New England. They make adjustments better than any team in the history of football or sports. They played Troy Brown at cornerback. They won a game against a playoff-bound Houston Texans team last year with Jacoby Brissett at quarterback. The Patriots have bad seasons in the same way The Sopranos did: they are bad only relative to their other seasons — and the seasons were still pretty good!

The way I see it, there are four scenarios in which it’s actually panic time:

  1. The Saints hang 50 on them: The Patriots’ worst finish in points scored on offense since 2010 is fourth in the league. When they win titles, it’s because they are an offensive juggernaut and just good enough on defense. This has been the case for a decade, and I’m willing to believe that the Chiefs game was a blip on the radar. But if Matt Patricia’s defense is just abysmal — especially if Malcolm Butler and Stephon Gilmore look terrible in pass coverage for the second week in a row against Brees — then all the offensive competence in the world can’t help them.
  2. The Pats offense looks horrendous against a Saints team that doesn’t know what the hell it is doing on defense. The Patriots showed some signs of life last week. Mike Gillislee had three touchdowns. Tom Brady had zero touchdowns and a 70 rating but again, short him at your own peril. The Saints defense, last seen allowing Sam Bradford to become the darling of the NFL, hasn’t finished in the top half of the league in points allowed in the past three years, which seems impossible.
  3. There’s an injury to another pass catcher. They’ve already lost Julian Edelman for the season and Danny Amendola with a concussion. If they get even thinner — yikes. They are one of the rare teams who can exist with only a few good skill guys, but they at least need Rob Gronkowski or Brandin Cooks to be on the field to catch the passes. Even New England needs a healthy offensive core.
  4. Bill Belichick retires mid-game to spend more time with his first love: talking about punters.

With any outcome, just be patient. You don’t want to be one of these people calling the Patriots washed like — wait, it’s our own Chris Ryan!

Look, I get it. There are all sorts of bad predictions. A couple of decades ago, many reporters claimed the internet was a fad. Fourteen months ago, I predicted Andy Dalton would have a better 2016 season than Aaron Rodgers. But you do not want to be one of these people who join the graveyard of takes by declaring the end of the Patriots.

Panicking about the Patriots defense is as common a New England tradition as Dunkin’ Donuts and stealing signs with Apple watches. After last year’s loss to Seattle, MassLive wrote that the unit could be the Patriots’ “downfall.” (It wasn’t, and they won the Super Bowl.) Almost years before that, the Boston Herald detailed the “big holes” in the defense. (Nah. You guessed it: They won the Super Bowl.) The complaints — mostly centering around Belichick’s longtime inability to build a secondary — stretch back to 2010, by which time all of the glory-days “Patriot Way”–types had left the team and Belichick had rebuilt the defense.

For four straight years from 2010 to 2013, the team ranked 25th or worse in yards against — that stretch yielded a Super Bowl appearance and two AFC title game appearances. With a few breaks, those teams — particularly the 2011 squad — could have won the Super Bowl, just like Belichick’s first Super Bowl–winning squad, which ranked 24th. Since 2006, this has been an offensive-minded team. The defense just has to be good enough.

Against Kansas City, the Patriots scored 27 points — not horrendous, but Brady looked off. His rating was Dalton-esque but not unprecedented. It was better than his 59.9 rating against the Chiefs in 2014 and even his 68.2 against Denver last year. It’s not unheard of for Brady to be bad, but it would be unheard of for him to stay that way.

Plus, did anyone watch the Thursday night game? There are some really bad quarterbacks, offensive lines, defenses, and coaches in the league right now. The Patriots — the most competent organization in American sports — have such a high floor simply because they know what to do. I’ll leave it to others to sell them short.

The Saints-Patriots matchup pits the two best pure passers of their generation in what is almost certainly their last matchup. Their 2013 matchup, in which Brady stunned the Saints with a late touchdown, remains a modern classic, as it produced this incredible Rob Ryan GIF. These two quarterbacks re-wrote record books and are nos. 1 and 2 in active passing yards, combining for nearly 130,000 passing yards between them. It’s going to be a beautiful game.

The defenses certainly don’t seem like they’ll do anything to stop that from happening. Chan Ho Park probably grooved a pitch to Cal Ripken Jr. to let him hit a homer in his last All-Star Game. Brett Favre sorta dove to let Michael Strahan break the single-season sack record. And these two defenses will let two great, golden-age-of-passing quarterbacks torch them.

So, just enjoy the game. History suggests that they’ll peak when it gets cold. Also, the Patriots have earned every right to stink for a week or two. Much like the Los Angeles Dodgers, New England can pretty much take all of September off. Hell, remember when New England lost the 2003 opener to the Bills 31–0, lost three weeks later to Steve Spurrier’s awful Redskins team, and — yep — won the Super Bowl? This is not even the first time in recent memory that they’ve stunk against the Kansas City Chiefs in prime time. The last time they did that, in 2014, they won the Super Bowl. The press had to ask about Brady’s job security after that game. The Patriots won 10 of their next 12.

But the way they stunk last Thursday — giving up the most points and yards of the Belichick era to Alex Smith; turning a short-passing artist into a deep-ball specialist — is particularly glaring. It’s like getting your 3-point defense exposed by Rajon Rondo. The roster appears to be a defensive end short, something many feared when third-round pick Derek Rivers got injured and Rob Ninkovich retired, and the defense just looked confused.

Yet, this is a franchise whose answer to the majority of its problems … is to win the Super Bowl. They get as much leeway as they want.

One of my favorite things about football is how much we misunderstand in the early part of the season. We are clueless. Last year, I talked to some professors who told me about how easy it is to gamble the first two weeks of the season: In Week 1, you should always bet on a non-playoff team from the previous season when they play a playoff team. In Week 2, if there are two 0–1 teams, always take the underdog because everyone always thinks bad teams early in the season are worse than they actually are. No one is as good or bad as they seem right now. And certainly not the Patriots.

We never know how good they are at this point. We don’t find out about them until January.

Four More Thoughts for Sunday and Monday

1. Is Cardinals-Colts safe for work? No Andrew Luck, no David Johnson. Tickets were going for $10 on StubHub last time I checked. Watch this game only because it may be the last time in a long time that one of these teams wins a game.

2. What’s up with the Falcons and Packers? Speaking of not making statements in September: We don’t know how good either of these teams is just yet. Despite the two wins, the Falcons had a disjointed game against the Bears last week and the Packers had a rough go of it on offense and beat the Seahawks by taking advantage of Seattle’s world-worst offensive line. This game will go a long way in determining which of these teams will be competing for the NFC title.

3. Is … Cam Newton OK? Ron Rivera said Newton, who had shoulder surgery in the spring, being limited in practice is the “new normal.” He was all right in roasting a bad Niners team last week, throwing two touchdown passes in a 23–3 win, and he gets a small upgrade in competition against Buffalo this week. The Panthers have the defense and supporting cast to compete for the NFC South; Buffalo will help us figure out if they have a healthy enough quarterback.

4. Are the Dolphins or Bucs any good? Two would-be sleepers in their divisions missed Week 1 after Hurricane Irma. The Dolphins have the Chargers and the Bucs have the Bears — both winnable games. Just by virtue of not playing, they each avoided the stink of mediocrity that permeated much of Week 1. Week 2 provides a rare delayed first look at two potential playoff teams.