I never heard a building as consistently loud as it was at the Superdome on Monday night during the Saints-Patriots game. This story illustrates what things sounded like — in the open-air press box, there were colleagues of mine who were wearing earplugs to try to get some relief. At one point, there was a Dixieland band playing directly underneath the press box, which only added to the surreal nature of the whole thing. But it was really loud.
By the way, I’m on board the New Orleans bandwagon. It’s a great city with terrific fans and a fantastic atmosphere for football. Nothing not to like about the way they operate. The Saints have a world-class offense that has to be seen in person to be believed, combined with a really underappreciated defense — and a secondary that includes the great Darren Sharper. As long as they get home field, there’s no reason to think they won’t be in it until the very end. (FYI, I got some good-natured grief from readers for picking the Saints on WEEI’s “NFL Sunday” last week. Haven’t heard anything from those same people since Monday night.)
Anyway, here’s the weekly mailbag. Lots of venting about what happened in New Orleans on Monday night, which is to be expected. Sorry it was a day late — blame “Monday Night Football” for screwing up the schedule. We do this every week, people. Send your Patriots-related e-mails to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Don’t be shy.
… No pass rush. Go ahead, say it.
I think I sent you this same e-mail after the Colts game. I was unable to finish the whole game on Monday — although I saw all the Pats’ scoring — due to the seething anger I was experiencing after listening to Ron Jaworski talk about the Saints' pressure on [Tom] Brady during halftime and the report that the Saints coaching staff was equally pleased with that aspect of their first-half performance. While the Colts were playing with rookies, the Saints were playing with two corners who had been out of football until three weeks ago. One apparently arrived the week of the game! In both cases, Tom was under pressure while his receivers were covered. [Peyton] Manning and [Drew] Brees, on the other hand, seemed to have plenty of time to find receivers.
As I listened to Jon Gruden say, “If Brady has time, he is deadly,” I began to wonder if Manning and Brees donned a Pats helmet and played against their own defenses, would they look as comfortable as they did against the Pats? I would guess not. Despite having an intact secondary — I am not worrying about the loss of Shawn Springs — the Pats can’t pressure or stop the elite offenses. To me, the “eyeball” test says the difference is the pass rush. Why can the depleted Colts and Saints rush Brady and cover the receivers while the Pats, with only one exception I saw — a Jerod Mayo sack of Manning — seem to be unable to do either?
FYI, I am glad I missed the second half. I don’t think I could go to work again — like I did after the Colts game — with no sleep.
A: Mike, you are right on with this. The Patriots were unable to get any sustained pressure against either Peyton Manning or Drew Brees. Some of it can be explained away with the fact that New England played a lot of nickel against both teams, and so the Pats weren’t bringing a lot of rushers. But even when they were in 3-4, it was difficult to get to Brees. Their backs did a nice job picking up the extra rusher when someone got free, and the New Orleans quarterback needed only the smallest of windows to hit a receiver. New England preaches team defense, and it was a complete breakdown in all areas against the finest offense in the league.
What were the worst losses in Patriots history? What was BB’s worst lost in his coaching career? With injuries being a part of the game, why isn’t there a minor leagues of professional football to keep players in game shape if they are needed to fill in. Thank you. I’ll hang up and listen to your answer.
A: I went back through the archives, and statistically, the worst loss in Patriots history was a 52-0 drubbing at the hands of the Dolphins back in 1972, a game in which Miami was throwing the ball in the fourth quarter. (When Don Shula started muttering about running up the score in 2007, I rolled my eyes when I saw this box score.) The worst loss of Bill Belichick’s coaching career likely came in the 2003 opener against the Bills in Buffalo when Lawyer Milloy and Drew Bledsoe humiliated the Patriots, 31-0. An honorable mention happened last season when Miami came into Foxboro and used the Wildcat to lay a 38-13 beat down on New England, a 25-point loss. (Although a 24-point defeat at the hands of the Chargers — 41-17 — back in 2005 in Foxboro was pretty hideous.) And a minor league for the NFL wouldn’t be cost-effective to run — theoretically, the practice squad is supposed to serve as your Triple-A team.
After the thrashing the Patriots got, it would be easy to go crazy, but the issues are still ones that were there before the game. The question is: What can they do to fix them? My questions are specifically about the offense.
Could they bring Charlie Weis back in midseason to get some better and more unpredictable play-calling? Sure, I saw a couple of sweeps last night, but that isn’t the same as getting Charlie back. Same for the first drive of the second half. It looks like the offense made some adjustments, but after that first drive, the Patriots were shut down. With the talent this team has, the only reason I can find that the Patriots aren’t getting a lot more open have to do with COACHING. Better routes, better play design, better play-calling. There’s no reason with Randy Moss, Wes Welker and Ben Watson that we can’t get guys open when we need to like Weis did with Troy Brown, David Patten, Deion Branch and David Givens. Are you telling me that Brown and Patten were a better tandem than Moss and Welker?
I could say the same thing on defense as well, especially the defensive backs coach. We won Super Bowls with guys we picked up off the street, we can’t win with what are allegedly solid free agent signings (Leigh Bodden/Shawn Springs) and high draft picks? Why all of a sudden are our DBs incapable of providing solid coverage? (Well, besides the fact that the D-line gets way too little pressure)
A: Phillip, I think if you’re comparing the offense and defense at this point, the offense is the far superior unit. Even after Monday night, New England remains one of the highest-scoring offenses in the league — the Pats currently are fourth in the league in total points with 307. As for Monday, to paraphrase Pedro Martinez, you just need to tip your hat and call the Saints your daddy. (Wes Welker did say that the Saints threw a few curveballs at them defensively.) New Orleans played a great defensive game and forced the Patriots to have to throw the ball in the second half to try to get back into it. (New England had just five carries over the final 1.5 quarters against the Saints.) And any time you make a team one-dimensional, it’s an unfair fight.
The Patriots still need some scoring consistency (they have just 101 second-half points over the entire season, which remains one of the oddest statistical anomalies I’ve ever seen), a more consistent running attack and better red zone execution. But they have been able to put the necessary points on the board to win games. They’ve had one lousy performance — in Week 2 against the Jets. But in every other game, they’ve done their part to contribute to a win.
The defense, on the other hand, is not an elite group anymore. As I stated here, it wasn’t embarrassing, because the Saints have made other respectable defenses look bad. But it revealed that the Patriots defense is by no means a championship-caliber unit. If New England is going to go deep into January, it’s going to be because it's going to outscore teams, not stop them. You specifically mention the DBs, who had a lousy night on Monday. But at the same time, the Patriots preach team defense, and when you can’t get a sustained pass rush, even world-class defensive backs are incapable of covering for more than five or so seconds at a time.
Has anyone happened to notice when the Pats play other strong and upcoming teams there is a common theme? The other teams remind me of the Patriots of the past. They show desire, hunger, determination and teamwork. One common goal. The Patriots look disinterested, lethargic and with the attitude of “been there, done that.” We get the same rhetoric every week from players and coaches on their performance, but as an old coach once told me, “You can draw all the X’s and O’s you want, but when you go out on the field to play the game, it is the team who wants it the most who usually prevails.”
A: David, I agree. On Monday, the Saints came out sky high, and other than a good first seven or eight minutes, the Patriots were unable to match their intensity level for a full four quarters. Things changed when Mike McKenzie was able to get that early interception of Brady — New Orleans controlled everything about the game after that point. The crowd also had to have been a factor. In many ways, the runaway aspect of the game reminded me of the 2003 opener against Buffalo, when things got out of hand so quickly that the opponent was running out the clock midway through the fourth quarter.
What I saw in Belichick on Sunday was a realization that his team just isn’t good enough. The Patriots simply don’t have the personnel on defense to beat the elite teams, and the offense isn’t “lights out” enough to win those games by themselves.
A: I agree. As currently assembled, this defense is not good enough to get a key stop in a big situation. The signature moment for the New England defense this season likely came in the Baltimore game when the Ravens were on the march late, driving for what would have been a go-ahead score. But Baltimore was stopped with less than a minute to go deep in Patriots territory when Ravens wide receiver Mark Clayton simply dropped a fourth-down reception.
The Pats aren’t a dynasty anymore. Let’s stop acting like they’ve won anything since 2004. They haven’t. The only integral player from the '01, '03 and '04 teams is Brady, and we see in his inability to hit on the long ball and his record in big games, he wasn’t the same guy before the knee injury and he’s less now. This is not a championship-caliber team, and anyone who is let down by this loss still believes it is.
A: Brian, the dynasty from the early part of the decade is dead — that era probably ended that night in the desert against the Giants. However, I think as long as the offense has Brady, Randy Moss and Wes Welker, it has to be considered championship caliber. The defense, that’s another story.
Bottom line: Patriots are a second-tier team right now. The Saints, Colts and Vikings are better, period. The defense is young and has NO big playmakers. They simply aren’t that good. Next year maybe, but it’s another year that Moss gets older. He isn’t getting better, just slower.
A: The Patriots are a second-tier team right now, because the Saints are all alone on that top rung. I spoke with several people in the wake of the Monday night loss who know a lot more about the game than I do, and they still believe the Patriots are still one of the top 5-7 teams in the NFL. In addition, one person said that what happened on Monday speaks more to New Orleans’ dominance that New England’s struggles. If you forced me to choose right now, I’d say the top team in the league right now is New Orleans, with — in no particular order — the Patriots, Indianapolis, Minnesota, Cincinnati, Dallas, San Diego and Denver on that next level, with Pittsburgh and either Baltimore or Arizona rounding out the top 10. But I’d agree with you about the lack of playmakers on defense. That needs to be remedied, and fast.
The next person that calls Belichick a “defensive genius” ought to be committed. This defense, and in particular the d-backs, have been shredded not just Monday against the Saints but against the Colts, among others. They don’t hit anyone, they don’t tackle (whether they can is another story). They aren’t fast enough to keep up with receivers and don’t do anything to slow anyone down. It is depressing and frustrating to watch them make the same mistake and same play every time down the field. If anyone seriously thinks this team is a contender for a Super Bowl the way the Patriots have looked the last three weeks, they should have their head examined.
A: I thought our columnist Kerry Byrne did a good job with the idea that Belichick’s reputation as a defensive genius was left in tatters in the wake of Monday’s game against New Orleans. (Check out that story here.) The Patriots’ defensive backs have been on a roller coaster all season — they came into the season as the great unknown quantity. There have been times where they have played well, and there have been times where they have struggled. I’d go back to the idea of team defense, and because of that, I’d say it was a combination of things that doomed the New England defense against the Saints. No pass rush, poor coverage and missed tackles are a recipe for failure, no matter whom you’re playing against.
Well, NOW everyone knows why Belichick went for it on fourth-and-2 against the Colts: WE. CAN’T. STOP. ANYBODY. As usual, the offense played well enough to win (Brady’s interceptions notwithstanding), but we STILL let receivers get a free release off the lines — never mind that Saints defensive backs have to draw blood to get a call. We have NO pass rush — maybe it might be time to send guys in the blitz!?!?!
Overall, this loss doesn’t impact us too badly. We’d REALLY have to screw the pooch to not make the playoffs, and things set up very well for us to get a first-round bye. I have no doubt that should we see these guys (Come on, they’re the bleeping SAINTS for the love of God!) or the Colts in the playoffs, we’ll win. I don’t think there’s been a team in the NFL going back eight years that could beat us twice in a season.
A: Let’s end on this semi-optimistic note. (You get extra points because of the Ali G reference, Boo. Respect.) I think that in the grand scheme of things, the Patriots still are very much in the mix for a possible first-round bye, especially when you consider the schedules the rest of the way. New England finishes with a ridiculously easy schedule (the only team over .500 is Jacksonville, and the Jaguars are 6-5), which means that 12-4 is pretty much a lock. Assuming that the Colts will capture the No. 1 seed, the No. 2 seed remains in play, with Cincinnati (currently at No. 2 with an 8-3 record), San Diego (tied for No. 2 spot) behind them. The Broncos have the edge on the Patriots for the fourth spot — both have a 7-4 mark. But a scenario exists where the Patriots could move up to No. 2 — the Bengals face the Vikings in Minnesota as well as the Chargers in San Diego and the Jets at the Meadowlands. They won’t finish 13-3. Meanwhile, the Chargers have road games against the Cowboys and the smoking-hot Titans, while the Broncos have roadies left against the Colts and Eagles. They also will likely lose at least one game in each of those scenarios. New England has zero margin for error, but if the Patriots run the table, the No. 2 seed is up for grabs. Where they go from there is anyone’s guess. But you get that home field until the AFC championship game in Indy, well …