The Patriots now have something to prove. Forget about the 31-3 loss to the Bengals being a wake-up call for the defending champs. This team, we are to believe, is loaded with veteran experience and has in its grasp the experience of recently defending a title two years ago. So this team knows what to expect. It cannot blame the embarrassing, uninspiring preseason performance against the Bengals on Cincinnati simply getting up to play the champion. That doesn't fly this year.
But the effort wasn't completely unexpected. The Patriots had a terrible week of practice leading up to the game. They practiced for an unusually long 2.5 hours two days before the Bengals game likely because they weren't executing well. Earlier in the week, Belichick had to stop practice, call his team into a circle and berate it. There were two fights, false start penalties and dropped passes. There was no crispness to the week's work.
So it was no surprise to see the Bengals playing at a higher emotional level and executing better than the Patriots last Saturday night. Marvin Lewis' up-and-coming team used the Patriots as a measuring stick just as every team on New England's schedule will do this year. If New England isn't ready for that kind of emotionally charged effort from its opponent every week, there will be more embarrassing performances like the one put forth in preseason week 2.
"The team wasn't ready to play," Belichick said. "I don't know how they could possibly have any pride in that performance tonight. They took the ball, ran down the field and scored. We took the ball, ran three plays and gave it back to them."
The Patriots starting defense surrendered touchdowns on the Bengals first two possessions with little resistance before being lifted and re-inserted at the start of the second half to save face against the Bengals reserves. The offense didn't fare much better.
Last week, Belichick, while searching for something to criticize, targeted a shaky passing offense for its failure to execute. This week, his list will be much longer. It will also include the rushing offense, passing defense, rushing defense and special teams -- everything. The only player who seemed to show up in Cincinnati last week was punter Josh Miller, who averaged 52.7 yards on three punts.
Two days before the game, linebacker Larry Izzo said of his team's practice performance, "I didn't think it was a productive day. It doesn't matter who we are playing, if we have days like this it isn't going to look good. As the reigning champs, you are going to have teams that are going to give you their best effort every week, especially on the road."
So they do know that each week will bring an opponent's best. They said they knew two years ago as well, but it didn't show during an up-and-down 9-7 season. Saying you know what to expect and showing you know are quite different, and if the preseason effort against the Bengals is an indication of what is to come, Belichick has to find a way to make his players understand that. The talk is hollow at this point and while there is no cause for panic after a preseason drubbing that will be forgotten in two weeks, there is a cause for concern when a team that takes preseason games quite seriously performs shamefully.
Belichick has told his players to forget they are champions just as he did two years ago, to not rest on their laurels. That's well-intentioned, but the rest of the league hasn't forgotten. The Patriots need to play with the pride of a champion just as every team on its schedule measures up against them. Doing that will ultimately determine their fate.