The Tennessee Titans pulled the curtain back on the Patriots’ aura of eminence. Then they brought the curtain down on New England’s six-game winning streak.
Some Sundays, it feels as though the Patriots’ mystique is worth a few points. Opponents are intimidated and daunted by the prospect of playing against Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, of going toe-to-toe with the Team of the 21st Century. They’re not just playing the guys in the Patriots uniforms. They’re playing the team’s past and reputation.
It’s the psychological accumulation of the Patriots’ perennial success since 2001. Opponents are not just concerned about Brady beating them through the air. They’re subconsciously concerned about the Patriots’ air of invincibility. One of the men who helped construct that air, former Patriots linebacker Mike Vrabel, knew better than to let the team he is currently head coach of fall into that trap.
Vrabel’s Titans treated the Patriots like any other NFL team coming into Nissan Stadium. They played them and beat them, 34-10, like the flawed, vincible, vulnerable team the Patriots currently are.
There is an important common thread in the three Patriots losses this season, and it’s not that all three have come on the road. All three have come against teams that have treated Patriots Mystique like a brand of bad cologne and not an actual factor. They’ve seen the Patriots for who and what they are — fragile if they fall behind early — and not as inevitable and indomitable AFC finalists.
The Jaguars let the Patriots escape in the AFC Championship game last season. The experience emboldened them for the rematch in Jacksonville in Week 2. They trash-talked the Patriots during the week and then thrashed them, 31-20.
Former Patriots defensive coordinator and current rookie head coach Matt Patricia had his Detroit Lions discourage and dominate Brady & Co. in a 26-10 victory in Week 3 that saw the Patriots generate a season-low 209 yards.
Vrabel and his band of ex-Pats followed suit Sunday, as the Patriots offense sputtered and the defense got exposed in familiar fashion. It seems Houston Texans coach Bill O’Brien is the only one with Patriots roots incapable of demystifying the ways of his former employer.
Those who have played or coached in Fort Foxborough have intimate knowledge of the Patriots players and approach, but they also know that everyone who plays or coaches there is not blessed with infallibility by Belichick. They focus on the players, not the persona.
The Patriots can be beaten and embarrassed, just like any other NFL team. This was the message that Vrabel, former Patriots defensive coordinator and current Titans defensive coordinator Dean Pees, and Patriots-turned-Titans Logan Ryan, Malcolm Butler, and Dion Lewis conveyed to their team.
They appeared highly motivated to prove the Patriots mere mortals.
“I didn’t have to prove anything,” said a fired-up Lewis, who let his animosity for the Patriots flow freely. “I know I can play. I just had to let our team know that these guys are beatable. I know those guys. I know that [if you are] physical with them and let them have it, they’ll fold.”
Right attitude, poor form, Dion.
Belichick does a better job disguising warts and unsightly roster weaknesses than any coach. He’s a pigskin plastic surgeon, enhancing his team’s look to make them appear better than they would be naturally. Brady can take table scraps and whip up a gourmet meal on offense. But their genius has its limitations, and so does this roster.
This iteration of the Patriots has a paucity of playmakers defensively in the front seven. It relies too much on cornerback Stephon Gilmore and its trio of safeties, where most of the money was invested, to make plays. It has issues with mobile quarterbacks and running backs and tight ends in the passing game. Sunday’s meltdown marked regression after a great job containing Green Bay and Aaron Rodgers.
Offensively, the Patriots have been inconsistent. In his last three games, Brady has one touchdown pass in 121 attempts. During that time, the pliability passer is completing just 59.5 percent of his passes and has absorbed seven of his 16 sacks this season. Prior to this slump, the Patriots scored 38 points or more in four straight games.
It turns out it really wasn’t a good sign that the Patriots had to resort to trick plays to gain traction against the Packers. They tried that same tactic against the Titans, and, like Brady after catching that pass from Julian Edelman, it fell flat.
Before backup Brian Hoyer replaced Brady, the Patriots went seven possessions without scoring. According to CBS, that marked their most consecutive possessions without scoring with Brady since the infamous “mortar kick” loss to the Philadelphia Eagles on Dec. 6, 2015, when they went eight straight, counting an end-of-half kneel-down.
Not having a fully operational Rob Gronkowski, who has missed three of the last four games with ankle/back issues, has forced the team to lean heavily on running back James White in the passing game. White had never topped 99 touches in a season. He has 127 through 10 games.
Even with the addition of Josh Gordon, the Patriots remain undermanned at wide receiver. It’s a two-man effort with Edelman and Gordon, as Chris Hogan is so far removed from Brady’s Circle of Trust he needs binoculars just to see the entrance.
Phillip Dorsett has disappeared. In the last five games, he has played a total of 43 snaps after playing 42 snaps Oct. 4 against Indianapolis, which was his lowest snap count of the first five games.
It was telling that the Patriots put so much of their game plan on Gordon, who was targeted 12 times and made four catches for 81 yards, 44 of them on one grab. Relying that heavily on a receiver who has been on your roster for less than eight weeks is an indictment of the offense.
Vrabel used to harass Brady when they were teammates, riding him and deriding him. His defense did a good job of harassing Brady and getting in his face Sunday with pressure up the middle. Brady registered his most incompletions of the season, finishing 21 of 41 for 254 yards. He has appeared more susceptible to pressure this season than usual.
The Titans saw all these aforementioned Patriots flaws on tape. They saw their opening, and they plowed through it. They saw the Patriots for who they are now, not who they have been.
Now, the Patriots go into their bye at 7-3 having to pick up the pieces and needing to pick up the pace if they want to earn the top seed in the AFC playoffs. Home-field advantage is always important for the Patriots, but it feels non-negotiable this season if they are to advance to a third straight Super Bowl.
The Patriots would like to forget this drubbing against the Titans.
They’d better hope that more teams don’t start remembering that their mystique shouldn’t matter.