Where else could it be after an uninspiring 31-3 exhibition loss to the Bengals
followed by a sloppy but more intense 20-17 preseason loss at Carolina? Belichick
has said since the offseason began that 2003 is in the past, but his goal is
to make his players believe that.
In that light, the loss at Cincinnati was an eye-opener for New England. It was an example of the emotion the team will face every week. It proved to them that the only reason the rest of the league cares about their 17-2 championship 2003 season is for motivation when the Patriots pop up on the schedule.
Safety Rodney Harrison, who was a major contributor to last year's championship, recalls the 2002 defending champion Patriots visiting his Chargers club. He doesn't believe the Patriots have to worry about complacency as much they do matching the opponent's intensity every week.
"I think the other teams raise their level," Harrison said. "When
New England came into San Diego in 2002, we were so hyped and so pumped up because
that was our Super Bowl. We have to understand that wherever we go, people are
going to feel the same way."
But beyond being emotionally ready or not ready to play week-to-week, the Patriots have been anything but consistent throughout the summer and Belichick is hardly a coach that believes his club can simply flip a switch when Sept. 9 rolls around.
After a near dominant defensive season in 2003, the Patriots have struggled
throughout the preseason in all areas. Through three summer exhibitions, opposing
quarterbacks completed 57 percent of their throws with five touchdowns and no
interceptions while being sacked only twice and compiling a passer rating of
92.2. Those numbers are a far cry from the ones New England had last season
when they intercepted 27 passes while allowing just 11 touchdown throws and
held passers to a 53.1 completion percentage and 56.2 rating.
So while the outcome of preseason games is meaningless, the performance in
those games is not. It's hard to believe that the Patriots are simply being
so vanilla on defense that they didn't mind making Carson Palmer and Jake Delhomme
look Canton-bound. But Harrison isn't concerned.
"We have to play at a high level and that's our responsibility as individuals. There's no guarantee because you have the same guys that they'll play at the same level. Some guys have good years and some guys have bad years. The way we've been working, the way we've been in the classroom, the way we've been on the field, you try to prepare yourself for success and you do that by working hard. Some things you can't control. As a unit, we're working hard. In the preseason, you try different things and if they don't work, you change them. Against Indy, we intend on being prepared and intend on playing well."
To the Patriots credit, the intensity increased as the preseason progressed, but it wasn't just the pass defense that was worrisome. Opponents also averaged 4.1 yards per carry on the ground and that wasn't inflated by NFL hopefuls struggling in the second half of preseason games. The defense has yet to prove that it can stop the run consistently without Ted Washington manning the nose. That becomes especially worrisome when one considers that the last five Super Bowl champions all suffered performance dips against the run the following season. Of those last five champions preceding the 2003 Patriots, four allowed 20-plus rushing yards per game more in their post-championship season, including the 2002 Patriots team that allowed 137.4 rushing yards per game.
"I think everything is a concern at this point," Belichick said.
"I don't think there's any part of our game that has been consistent. We've
had our moments and we try to get better. Pass defense is one of them. Pass
rush. Go down the line. We really need to be able to consistently play well
in every phase of the game."
The rushing offense also falls into the inconsistent category even with Corey Dillon replacing Antowain Smith in the backfield. The Patriots didn't have a
preseason rushing touchdown through three games and Dillon also had lost a fumble.
The offensive line played half the summer without its starting tackles and still
faces the question of whether it can adequately replace Damien Woody.
Then there is Tom Brady. The Patriots quarterback has had a fine summer, completing 66 percent of this throws while averaging 8.5 yards per attempt with a 96.2 passer rating. He has suffered from shaky protection at times, but overall has been solid and consistent. He is their saving grace, but now must stave off the Sports Illustrated cover jinx and stay healthy. His well being will be critical to the Patriots chances.
Belichick continues to remind his team that it's back at the bottom of the
mountain looking to climb along with the rest of the league and it would presumptuous
to say that the team's preseason inconsistencies are tied to complacency, but
the 31-3 loss suffered in Cincinnati may have been a blessing for a team that
needed that kick in the pants to up the intensity, which it did a week later
against the Panthers.
"The record isn't really indicative of where we are right now," Harrison
said. "We're improving. We're getting better. We had a pretty good showing
against Carolina. We had too many mental errors, too many penalties, but we're
getting better and that's all you can ask for - steady improvement over the
course of time.
"The Bengals game was a wake-up call. I'm not going to say they're more
talented than us. But a lot of times it's not based on talent. It's based on
continuity, mental toughness, intensity and avoiding the stupid mistakes. Look
what happened to them. They kicked our butts and then got theirs kicked by Atlanta.
You have to be focused every week or that will happen. We're excited for Indianapolis
(the season opener). It's been a long time. We had over 30 practices in camp.
We have some brushing up to do. We're studying and looking forward to Indy."
If the Patriots continue to improve as they have throughout the summer, even
though the starting point was lower than expected, they should be favored to
repeat as AFC East champions. Belichick's boys are not foolish enough to make
predictions or look past the season opener against the Colts, but they remain
confident even after a shaky summer. Heading into last year's Super Bowl, Tedy Bruschi stressed the team's mentality when he said it enjoyed 14 one-game winning
So the hype surrounding their so-called title defense will be for others, at
least that's Belichick's hope. He simply asks them to prepare hard for every
game and respect every opponent. That is what he and his players control and
how they won 15 in a row last year.
"When we were winning last year, I think we were getting people's best," right tackle Tom Ashworth said. "So I expect that we'll still get teams' best every week. That's the way it is in this league. We just have to prepare hard and execute well."
COACHING: Bill Belichick, 10th year, 5th with Patriots (45-25).
REMEMBERING 2003: 14-2 (1st in AFC East); won Super Bowl XXXVIII over
PREDICTING: 2004 regular season record 10-6 (1st in AFC East); lose in AFC title game.
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