Even at 4-2, in sole possession of first place in the AFC East, there's plenty of cause for concern with this incarnation of the New England Patriots.
In some ways the Patriots are victims of their own standard of excellence, including the narrative that 19-0 was in play for the team in the preseason.
Not every New England team that has gone on to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl has gotten off to scorching starts, most notably the 2014 team that started 2-2 before winning Super Bowl XLIX.
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In other cases, fast starts haven’t led to the Patriots being the last team standing – or even being in the Super Bowl at all. Think 2015, when New England started 10-0 but lost four of its final six games. The slide caused the Patriots to lose home field advantage for the postseason and the team ultimately bowed out in the AFC Championship Game in Denver.
With the Atlanta Falcons in town this weekend, reminders of Super Bowl LI are seemingly everywhere. While the Falcons (3-2) have their own set of issues – they didn’t help erase 28-3 talk by blowing a 17-0 lead at home last weekend – the game could still serve as a great litmus test for the Patriots in seeing if they have what it takes to get back to the Super Bowl for the eighth time in the Tom Brady-Bill Belichick era.
Subpar New England defenses have at least gotten to the Super Bowl before. The 2011 team was No. 31 overall in total yardage by allowing 411.1 yards per game, a mere half yard better than the Green Bay Packers to avoid the basement. The unit was also No. 31 against the pass (293.3 yards per game), but more middle of the road against the run (17th, 117.1 yards per game) and scoring (15th, 21.4 points per game).
Those Patriots lost Super Bowl XLVI to the New York Giants, 21-17, but there’s little point in comparing the 2011 unit to this years. Only two players remain on the defensive side of the ball: Devin McCourty, who has since switched from cornerback to safety, and Patrick Chung, who had a year in exile in Philadelphia before returning to New England in 2014.
Still, the cold hard stats for the 2017 team are alarming, especially in comparison to the '11 outfit.
Through six games, the Patriots are dead last in both total yards per game defensively (440.7) and passing yards (324.8). The run defense is 20th, allowing 115.8 yards per game, but the majority of the cause for concern stems from New England’s scoring defense.
Aside from that 2011 Super Bowl runner-up, the Patriots have ranked in the top 10 in scoring defense each year since 2006. Last year’s Super Bowl champion team allowed the fewest points in the league.
New England currently has the third-worst scoring defense in 2017, giving up 26.5 points per game. Since the playoffs expanded to 12 teams in 1990, only twice has a team finished with a scoring defense ranked 20th or worse and still gone on to win the Super Bowl: the 2006 Indianapolis Colts and the 2009 New Orleans Saints.
Another facet where the team has struggled is on third downs. New England was great at getting teams off the field a season ago, allowing opponents to convert on 36.9 percent of their third downs – good enough for the seventh-best mark in the league.
This year, not so much. The Patriots are allowing opponents to convert on 43.4 percent of their third downs, good enough for a slip down to 26th in the league.
"[It’s] not frustrating because our guys are working," Chung said of the third-down defense. "Sometimes you get beat; they [the offense] get paid, too. I’m not frustrated. We know we have to buckle down, do our thing. We’re a good team."
The defense is far from identical from a personnel standpoint from last year, but it’s not like the unit underwent a total overhaul, either. Is it safe to assume New England’s best football is ahead of it?
"We don’t know that the best football lies ahead," Chung said. "It’s all really up to us. 4-2, it is what it is, but all that means nothing. We’re going to have to keep playing."
The '06 Colts and '09 Saints were able to overcome their shortcomings defensively thanks to top-flight quarterbacks in Peyton Manning and Drew Brees, respectively. Of course, these Patriots happen to have an elite offense featuring an elite quarterback of their own in one Tom Brady.
Brady is leading the league passing yards despite not having Julian Edelman, virtually no production from tight end beyond Rob Gronkowski, a running game yet to truly establish itself and an offensive line that’s taken a step back from last year. The advanced metrics are kind to Brady as well, who has been the top-ranked passer in the league through six weeks per Pro Football Focus with a grade of 92.0.
Brady's presence can and will mask any deficiencies on the defensive side of the ball through the remainder of the regular season and perhaps even beyond. In order for this time to truly fulfill its Super aspirations, the defense is going to have to keep up its part of the bargain.