CHRISTOPHER L. GASPER
Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff
FOXBOROUGH — In the immortal words of Patriots coach Bill Belichick, that’s not what we’re looking for. We weren’t looking for the Patriots to be the Foxborough .500 Club a quarter of the way through the season. No one thought a team that entered the season chasing history would be chasing neglected receivers and the AFC East-leading Buffalo Bills (3-1) after four games.
The Patriots (2-2) are an average team right now, the sum of an excellent offense and an inept defense that has turned opposing quarterbacks into Tom Brady clones. Despite another display of passing pyrotechnics by Brady, the Patriots lost to the Carolina Panthers, 33-30, on Sunday at Gillette Stadium. It was Sunday silence after Graham Gano drilled a 48-yard field goal with no time remaining to nullify a Brady fourth-quarter comeback.
If not for the gridiron grace of Brady, who led a pulsating comeback last Sunday against the Houston Texans, the Patriots would be 1-3 on the season with three home losses. Unfortunately for Brady, who passed for more than 300 yards for the third straight week (32 of 45 for 307 yards with two touchdowns), the defense is proving more pliable than muscles honed by the TB12 method. It has gone from bend-but-don’t-break to weekly breakdowns. It has been plagued by mix-ups, mental mistakes, and meltdowns in its high-priced secondary, all on vivid display against Carolina.
It’s too much for even Brady, on pace to throw for an NFL-record 5,596 yards this season, to overcome. The Patriots have to stop relying on Brady Bailouts.
“It’s bad. We’re letting the team down. It doesn’t matter offensively, special teams what we do. If we can’t play somewhat decent defense, it’s going to be hard to win games,” said safety and captain Devin McCourty. “Our offense played great last week and bailed us out. They played great again this week, and we let the team down. I wish I could tell you that if we do this better and do that better we’ll be all right. We’re just not playing well at all.”
“You got to be concerned. It’s on us. Today was on us in the secondary. We didn’t make plays. We gave up plays. Guys [were] wide open.”
This was supposed to be a get-well game for the Patriots’ defense, which came in ranked last in the league in total defense, pass defense, and points allowed. Cam Newton and the Panthers came in with the 30th-ranked passing attack (168.3 yards per game), and Carolina was averaging only 15 points per game. The Patriots’ failure to communicate in the secondary made Newton and the Panthers look like Dan Fouts and the Air Coryell Chargers.
No Patriots took a knee during the national anthem this week. But they still provided peaceful resistance in the form of their defense.
The Panthers rolled up 444 yards of offense. They didn’t punt until 7:34 of the fourth quarter. They had five straight drives between the second quarter and the fourth quarter that permeated Patriots’ territory, scoring four touchdowns and fumbling at the New England 7. Newton reverted to his 2015 NFL MVP form, with help from the Patriots. He was 22 of 29 for 316 yards, with three touchdowns and an interception. He rushed eight times for 44 yards and a score, after coming into the game with 46 rushing yards on the season.
When Newton put the Patriots in a 30-16 hole with a 1-yard touchdown run with 12:58 left, he was 21 of 25 for 311 yards passing.
Brady dutifully rallied the Patriots with a pair of touchdown drives, tying the game with a 1-yard touchdown pass to Danny Amendola with 3:09 to play. But then the defense let the Panthers zip down the field in the final 3 minutes and 4 seconds, aided by Stephon Gilmore’s second illegal use of hands penalty on the day. That costly flag kept Carolina on the field, negating a third-down sack by Deatrich Wise.
Gilmore was at the epicenter of the defense’s failures. The prized free agent cornerback acquisition, who got a five-year, $65 million contract, looks like he’s lost in translation in the Patriots’ defense. He knows the language, but he can’t speak it fluently yet. The Panthers’ first touchdown came when a simple motion by running back Christian McCaffrey resulted in both McCourty and Gilmore chasing him and vacating the entire right side of the defense. Just before the half, Gilmore’s failure to communicate with Eric Rowe gave Devin Funchess an uncontested 10-yard TD reception.
Money talks. Gilmore has to start earning his if he doesn’t want to go down as a coverage-busting free agent bust.
If the Patriots had any other quarterback in the NFL, save for Aaron Rodgers, they wouldn’t have even been in a position to overcome their baffling breakdowns. But Brady’s brilliance can’t always expunge the defense’s sins. Praying to Saint Thomas of San Mateo for weekly comebacks isn’t the secret to a successful season.
“You can’t win like that,” said cornerback Malcolm Butler. “If I was the Carolina Panthers, I would be over there saying I’m not going to let you do what you did to the Texans. You just can’t keep going shot for shot. You got to make a stop.”
With the defense beating itself, it’s like Brady has to play against himself. The defense has turned every QB into Brady.
Brady’s QB rating after four games is 116.6. Quarterbacks’ rating against the Patriots is 116.5. Brady has 10 touchdown passes and no interceptions and a 66.5 completion percentage. The Patriots defense has allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete 69.7 percent of their passes and throw 11 TD passes with three interceptions. Brady has thrown for 1,399 yards. Opposing passers have thrown for 1,341. Brady has guided the Patriots to 129 points this season, 32.3 per game. The defense has allowed 128 points, 32 per game.
Brady was diplomatic when asked if the defense’s struggles put more pressure on his shoulders. He said he didn’t feel that way, and the Patriots had to play better all around. Belichick said the Patriots need to play better collectively.
You can change collectively to defensively, Bill. Brady is holding up his end of the bargain.
You can take solace in the fact that the last time the Patriots were 2-2 was 2014. They won the Super Bowl.
There’s a lot of runway left for the Patriots to take off. But the Patriots can’t keep leaving Brady flying solo.
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