Looking for a silver lining from Sunday’s 26-10 loss to the Detroit Lions for the Patriots? Good luck.
New England is now 1-2, the latest in a season it's been under .500 since 2012. And it's not just the fact that the Patriots have two losses. It’s that they have two losses in which they have been thoroughly outplayed in every single phase of the game and have lost back-to-back games by 10 or more points for the first time since 2002. Sixteen years ago!
That year also marks the last time New England failed to win 10 games in a season (it went 9-7 in defense of its first Super Bowl title) and the last time it lost three straight games – an outcome that simply can’t happen this week when the Miami Dolphins come to town.
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How does this current state of panic stack up against some other times it looked like the walls were crumbling down on the Patriots? Here’s a look at some other times the end seemed apparent in the Tom Brady-Bill Belichick era.
“They hate their coach,” ESPN analyst Tom Jackson proclaimed after the Patriots were shut out by the Buffalo Bills in the season opener, 31-0. Brady threw four interceptions, finishing with a passer rating of 22.5, a figure which remains the lowest of his career. Panic meter: 7/10.
The response: New England wound up starting 2-2 before ripping off 12 straight wins to close the regular season and three more in the playoffs to capture Super Bowl XXXVIII. They followed that up with six more wins to begin the 2004 season, part of the longest winning streak in NFL history at 21 games. Even after the streak ended, things wound up just fine for the Patriots in 2004: they went on to win Super Bowl XXXIX to capture their third title in four years.
Kansas City Chiefs safety Bernard Pollard came crashing into Brady’s knee in the first quarter of the first game of the 2008 season, tearing the quarterback's ACL and knocking him out for the team’s final 15 games. Panic meter: 8.5/10.
The response: In what remains perhaps Belichick’s finest hour, he guided the Patriots to an 11-5 finish with Matt Cassel under center. Somehow, that record wasn’t good enough to make the postseason, as New England became just the second team ever to miss the playoffs with an 11-5 mark. One could argue that a season after becoming the best team ever to not win the Super Bowl (with an 18-1 finish), the Patriots became the best team ever to miss the playoffs.
Just like the current situation, New England began the 2012 campaign 1-2, complete with back-to-back losses after a season-opening win. The biggest difference? The first loss was by two points, the result of a Stephen Gostkowski missed field goal from 42 yards out with 5 seconds left; the next was a 1-point loss to a Baltimore Ravens team that went on to win the Super Bowl. Panic meter: 4/10.
The response: It was just your typical early season malaise, as the Patriots started 3-3 before finishing up at 12-4. They’d lose at home to the Ravens in the AFC Championship Game, though, with Bernard Pollard once again playing a prominent role - he knocked running back Stevan Ridley out of the game with a concussion…and became the last player ever to tackle Aaron Hernandez in an NFL game. Eerie stuff.
Losing in Miami was nothing new (and still isn’t) for the Patriots, who dropped the season opener to the Dolphins in South Florida. They’d bounce back to win their next two games, albeit in kind of “meh” fashion. Then came that infamous night in Kansas City, where Trent Dilfer did his very best Tom Jackson impression after a 41-14 win for the Chiefs. “They’re not good anymore,” Dilfer said on ESPN’s Monday Night Football postgame show. Throw in the fact that the Patriots hadn’t won the Super Bowl in 10 years, and Dilfer wasn’t entirely wrong, it seemed. Panic meter: 9.5/10.
The response: “We’re on to Cincinnati.” A week after being embarrassed on national TV, the Patriots returned the favor against a perfect punching bag in the Bengals, blowing the doors off of Cincinnati at Gillette Stadium in a 43-17 win on Sunday Night Football. New England turned its 2-2 start into a 12-4 finish and after undrafted cornerback Malcolm Butler was sent in during the final minute of Super Bowl XLIX, the Patriots captured their first Lombardi Trophy in a decade.
Despite holding a lead at the start of the fourth quarter, the Patriots gave up 21 unanswered points to the Chiefs in the final 15 minutes of the season opening 42-27 loss to Kansas City. The 42 points were the most allowed by New England under Belichick. The defense continued to be problematic throughout September, a month in which the Patriots went 2-2. Panic meter: 5/10.
The response: New England finished fifth in the NFL in scoring defense en route to a 13-3 regular season finish, but 29th out of 32 teams in total defense. The problem with the defense reared its ugly head again in a 41-33 Super Bowl loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, a game in which Malcolm Butler played just one special teams snap.
You know about the off-season drama surrounding Brady and Belichick, the near-trade of Rob Gronkowski and the countless personnel shortcomings on this roster. Everything we feared might be true three weeks ago might be even worse than we thought. Panic meter: 9/10.
The response: To be determined. The 2014 season offers what would be the best possible template for how these Patriots can respond from a moribund start. In hindsight, however, look at some of the playmakers on that defense: Darrelle Revis, Vince Wilfork, Chandler Jones, Jamie Collins, Rob Ninkovich, and a still-effective Dont’a Hightower. Julian Edelman is coming back, and maybe, just maybe, Josh Gordon can click with Tom Brady, but this is undoubtedly one of the most dire situations within the walls of Foxboro.