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Is It Time for Patriots Panic? Making Sense of New England’s December Mortality.

The Patriots looked decidedly un-Patriots-like in Sunday’s loss to the Steelers. Bill Belichick, Tom Brady, and Co. could still pull it together en route to the Super Bowl … but they seem more vulnerable than at any point in nearly a decade.

Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski AP Images/Ringer illustration

For the past two decades, writing off the Patriots at any point in the regular season has been a fool’s errand. It hasn’t mattered how poorly Bill Belichick’s team has looked in stretches. The defense can be in tatters, Tom Brady can miss wide-open targets, and aging stars can look like they’re nearing the end of their careers. Yet year after year the Pats endure, and, come championship weekend, there they are.

After Sunday’s ugly 17-10 loss to the Steelers, a team that New England has held in the palm of its hand for years, it’s once again tempting to raise the Patriots panic level to DEFCON 1. And before everyone from Waltham to Worcester crows about how fah-kin stupid that is, let’s acknowledge that the team’s current situation—and standing in the AFC playoff picture—is different than anything Belichick’s team has faced in nearly a decade. After Sunday’s loss, the Patriots now sit at 9-5, one game behind the Texans for the no. 2 seed in the AFC. If the season ended today, New England would play on wild-card weekend for the first time in nine years.

The Patriots’ unceasing success has largely been a product of Belichick’s attention to detail, Brady’s unparalleled greatness, and an organization-wide ability to adapt. But it’s also been fueled by the advantageous spots New England consistently puts itself in at the start of the postseason. Since 2001, Brady and Belichick have made the playoffs in 15 seasons. They’ve played on wild-card weekend in only three of those years. By now, facts about New England’s dynastic run can make the eyes gloss over, but that ratio is staggering. Under Belichick and Brady, this team has needed to play only two postseason games to reach the Super Bowl virtually every time the Pats make the playoffs. More often than not, they’ve accomplished that end.

But take a look at the seasons in which New England was bounced before the big game, and one hard-and-fast rule appears: When the Patriots have played on wild-card weekend, they’ve fallen short of the Super Bowl. And in two of those three seasons, they failed to even make the AFC championship game. One obvious explanation for that trend is that the Patriots teams that didn’t secure a bye simply weren’t as good as many of the others over Belichick and Brady’s run. Yet another explanation is more universal: Winning three playoff games—at least one of which will likely be on the road—is a tough task for any team, no matter how talented it is. If things don’t break the Patriots’ way over the last two weeks of the season, that’s what they’ll be facing.

The Patriots currently sit in the no. 3 seed in the AFC. If Houston can fend off the Nick Foles–led Eagles next week and take care of the imploding Jaguars in Week 17, that’s where they’ll stay entering the playoffs. That would bring a matchup with the no. 6 seed, likely the Colts or the Ravens. Both seem far more daunting than they did a month ago.

After dropping five of their first six games this year, the Colts have gone 7-1 over their past eight. And it’s not just that the Colts are winning—it’s how. Andrew Luck is all the way back, and this time around his deep-ball connection with T.Y. Hilton is backed up by head coach and play-caller Frank Reich’s well-constructed offense. In Sunday’s 23-0 win over the Cowboys, Indianapolis moved away from its passing game and leaned on a bruising ground attack led by running back Marlon Mack and a group of interior linemen that decimated Dallas inside. The Colts can hurt opponents in a lot of ways, and they only seem to be getting stronger. And if Indy doesn’t end up securing the no. 6 seed, that spot should go to the Ravens, who’ve embraced a new brand of football since Lamar Jackson took over as the starting quarterback five weeks ago. Jackson still seems limited as a passer (though he showed plenty of encouraging flashes in Sunday’s 20-12 win over Tampa Bay), but the motions and fakes that the Baltimore offense runs make preparing for it different than getting ready for any other opponent in the league. Combine that with a defense that gave the Chiefs all sorts of problems last week, and you get a team that could be a pain in the ass in the playoffs.

Even if the Pats did manage to knock off the Colts or Ravens in this playoff scenario, New England would likely be off to Houston for the divisional round before potentially heading to Kansas City on championship Sunday. Both of those games would be winnable for the Pats at their best: They beat Houston in Week 1 and the Chiefs in Week 6. But the team’s real issue right now is that the Patriots don’t look anything like the Patriots teams we’re used to.

In losses to the Dolphins and Steelers over the past two weeks, Belichick’s squad has committed the types of mental lapses it usually feasts on from its opponents. Against Miami, Brady took a sack at the end of the first half that moved the Patriots out of field goal range and cost them a shot at points before the break. And that pales in comparison with the Music City Miracle–esque lateral touchdown the defense allowed in the game’s final seconds. Similar errors showed up throughout the loss to Pittsburgh. On a second-and-16 midway through the fourth quarter, Brady attempted to throw a ball away down the right sideline while under duress. Instead of making it to the sideline, though, the toss landed in the hands of a leaping Joe Haden for a costly interception.

And the uncharacteristic mistakes weren’t just limited to Brady on Sunday. Drops plagued the Pats in the first half, and Josh Gordon, Julian Edelman, and James White were all guilty at least once. New England was charged with 14 penalties for 106 yards, and more than half of those calls came before the snap on offense. Those 14 penalties are the second most the team has ever committed under Belichick. The Patriots just looked … sloppy. After 20 years of situational precision, that’s hard to reconcile.

The other issue with the Pats, beyond the mental gaffes, is that they’re just not playing particularly well. Even if New England is better than the Texans, the offensive line could have serious trouble dealing with Houston’s defense, especially if the line plays like it did Sunday. Pittsburgh’s pass rush has been solid for much of the season, but the same defense that was recently torched by the Broncos and Chargers completely controlled the game against New England. And for as effective as T.J. Watt can be, I’d still be more afraid of facing his older brother. The Patriots have had trouble with Houston’s front even in seasons when its pass protection was solid; in its current state, Brady could be in for a long afternoon.

If the issues were limited to the line, it’d be reasonable to think that Brady and Belichick could overcome them in the same way they have many times before. But their problems extend far beyond one unit. The Pats have no answer when defenses double-team Rob Gronkowski in the middle of the field, and against Pittsburgh, the defense was gashed in the running game for the second week in a row. Getting shredded by the best backs in the league happens, but when Dolphins backup Brandon Bolden (two carries for 60 yards) and Steelers third-string running back Jaylen Samuels (19 carries for 142 yards) are tearing off huge gains, it’s time to be concerned.

Even as I type this, I know there’s a good chance it will all be for naught. Houston could easily lose to Philadelphia on the road next week, with the Eagles coming off a big win Sunday night against the Rams. If that happens and the Pats cruise to wins over the Bills and Jets to close the season, New England will be left with the no. 2 seed and a much easier road to another Super Bowl berth. But even so, not every Patriots team is created equal. The allure of those uniforms and the presence of Brady and Belichick can carry New England for only so long. Maybe this group will turn it around like so many have before it. But this time, the Patriots have a lot more work ahead of them and a lot less time to do it.