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For the Patriots, no defense in the big picture

10.02.11 at 10:09 pm ET
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Brandon Spikes and the Patriots defense shouldn't be celebrating quite yet. (AP)

Two questions before we get started:

If you swapped the two quarterbacks on Sunday don’t you think the final score might have been Raiders 31, Patriots 19?

And how many points would this Patriots offense put up against this Patriots defense?

Look, Sunday’s 31-19 win over the Raiders was a nice bounce-back from the disaster in Buffalo. Going across the country to play is never easy, the Black Hole, the Raiders are actually pretty good, all that stuff is true.

So yeah, if I had offered you Patriots 31, Raiders 19 five minutes before kickoff you probably would’ve signed for it. Same goes for a 3-1 start to the season, right?

But this isn’t the 49ers we are talking about, or the Bills or the Redskins. The Patriots are a Super Bowl or Bust team, one of maybe three or four in the NFL this season (Packers, Saints, Jets). We might keep one eye on looking for signs of progress in regular-season games, but the other eye is always locked in on The Big Picture.

And now, exactly one quarter through the regular season, we know this about the 2011 Patriots:

Nothing.

Well, nothing new, anyway. We all thought this offense was going to again be among the two or three best in the NFL. Maybe not at the level we saw at the end of the 2010 regular season, but still high cotton. And that is exactly what they have been. If Tom Brady — on pace for 6,212 yards and 52 touchdown passes — isn’t the First-Quarter MVP he’s on the very very shortlist. Wes Welker leads the NFL in catches and receiving yards (he’s on pace for 160 catches — I know, I know, it’s early in the season but this is obviously the Welker we knew before the ACL injury in Houston). The running game? 4.2 yards per carry in 2010, 4.4 yards per carry this season (with Stevan Ridley looming as a possible successor to Rob Gronkowski/Aaron Hernandez as Rookie Game-Changer). Sure, Ochocinco hasn’t yet (and might not) panned out, but Gronkowski looks like an All-Pro, Deion Branch has contributed and Hernandez was off to a solid start before his injury.

Putting it another way, here’s the Patriots offense in the last eight games of 2010:

403.1 yards, 37.3 points.

And in the first four games of 2011?

507.5 yards per game, 34.7 points.

In reality, this offense has actually played at a higher level. In the Super Bowl or Bust Department, they pass the first quarter with the ol’ flying colors.

But there are, as Dan Fogelberg once sang, two sides of a football coin (and if he didn’t he should have).

And with that we arrive at the defense, who remain a lot closer to Bust than Super Bowl.

Same question with the offense — what’s changed? What have you seen over these four games that tells you this group is any better than the 2010 defense?

Chad Henne — 28th in passer rating last season — threw for 416 yards and two touchdowns in Week 1 against the Patriots and has thrown for 452 yards in nine quarters since (Henne was knocked out in the second quarter on Sunday). The pass defense has allowed 416, 390, 369 and 344 yards against Henne, Philip Rivers, Ryan Fitzpatrick and Jason Campbell (Rivers is a top-10 QB but the Patriots have been chewed up by four guys that don’t exactly represent the Mt. Rushmore of quarterbacks).

And Sunday was just more of the same. Campbell threw a couple of dopey picks — more on those later — but still completed 25-of-39 passes for the 344 yards. The worst third-down defense in the NFL was lousy again Sunday (8-of-13) and Campbell was sacked zero times. The Raiders had 504 yards of offense, the second time since 2004 that they have topped the 500-yard total (or as many times as the Patriots offense has done so this season — I’m telling you, this offense would put up 50 points against this defense).

Have they continued to be opportunistic? Yup — we saw it against the Chargers and sure saw it again on Sunday. Pat Chung and Vince Wilfork made plays to stop what surely would have been more bleeding. But, after last season, is anyone buying into the idea that this defense bends but doesn’t break, or just knows when to step up?

That works against Jason Campbell. But (again, all we care about is Big Picture) raise your hand if you think Aaron Rodgers would make the throw Campbell made in the end zone, or if Drew Brees would be picked off by Wilfork.

And now it is looking like one of the five worst defenses in the NFL is going to be without its best player for at least six weeks (early reports have Jerod Mayo with a sprained MCL). Time for someone — anyone — to step up. Brandon Spikes was awful on Sunday, completly lose in pass coverage. Devin McCourty has allowed five touchdown passes this season and looks nothing like the guy that many (me included) thought was going to make the jump to elite No. 1 cornerback. The safeties have been brutal, the pass rush doesn’t exist (I still think they should have made a trade for Albert Haynesworth, or maybe signed Shaun Ellis) and there isn’t a single player in the group that is playing at a higher level than he did last year (and same goes for the HC of the NEP — these are Bill Belichick’s players and his schemes. If he’s going to be called a genius and have NFL Films make documentaries about him maybe he should be able to figure out a way to slow down Jason Campbell or Chad Henne).

It’s early in the season and there’s still time for things to change.

But a quarter of the way in, it  looks an awful lot like more of the same.

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