"Just another .500 team"
By Site Staff
With back-to-back Super Bowl titles, a league-record 21-game winning streak overall and a 21-game home winning streak, the Patriots lately have defined excellence in the NFL.
Now they are just another .500 team.
The Patriots have reached the halfway point of the season at 4-4 - a mark that is good enough to lead the sorry AFC East by a full game over both Miami and Buffalo but not nearly good enough to live up to the high standards they have set for themselves.
Monday night's 40-21 home loss to the Indianapolis Colts was surely the low point of this confounding season. Against a team they had beaten six straight times since 2001 and had emphatically knocked out of the playoffs each of the last two years, the Patriots looked helpless.
"It was pitiful, embarrassing," linebacker Rosevelt Colvin said.
The Colts scored at will (five touchdowns and two field goals on their first eight possessions), bottled up the Patriots' inconsistent running game and thoroughly halted any momentum New England had generated in the previous week's 21-16 home win over the Bills - a game that featured linebacker Tedy Bruschi's inspirational return from an off-season stroke.
"We are back on that roller coaster - up and down, up and down," Colvin said. "We have to get off it if we expect to move forward anytime soon. We have got to get it right and we have got to get it right fast."
All is not lost.
Looking at the second-half schedule, which includes five division games and a visit from the 2-7 Saints in two weeks, it's not hard to envision a 6-2 finish, or better. That should be enough for a third consecutive AFC East crown. But making hay against weak opponents will do nothing to toughen the Patriots up for the playoffs, where they might have to make a road trip to Pittsburgh (where they have already won this season), Denver (where they have lost), Cincinnati or Indy.
A fast finish also will do nothing to remove the perception that this team is simply not in the class of its 2003 or 2004 predecessors. For one thing, those clubs allowed 238 and 260 points, respectively, ranking 1-2 in franchise history (for a 16-game schedule). This team already has surrendered 220 points and has given up 40 points or more twice (to the Chargers and Colts). That hadn't happened since 1990, when the Patriots were 1-15.
So far, the Patriots have maintained a united front, showing none of the finger-pointing cracks that might corrode a lesser team. On a radio interview this week, injured strong safety Rodney Harrison did say that he was disappointed in the play of cornerback Duane Starks, but that was hardly a controversial statement. Everyone's been disappointed in Starks, who was benched for the second half of the Colts game.
The Patriots have done some things right. Well, maybe just one thing - throw the ball. Tom Brady is on pace to set career highs in passing yards (projected total: 4,570) and passer rating (97.0), and he's directed late, game-winning drives against the Steelers, Falcons and Bills.
Otherwise, it's been an across-the-board free fall.
The Patriots rank 28th in rushing offense, and Corey Dillon hits the halfway point more than 300 yards behind his pace of a year ago, when he ran for a franchise-record 1,635 yards. The offensive line, which starts two rookies on the left side, hasn't opened enough holes, and Dillon has been bothered by a sore ankle lately.
Defensively, though, is where most of the gaping wounds are.
The Patriots rank second-to-last in yards allowed and are 27th against both the run and the pass. They've generated just six takeaways (tied with the Redskins for the second fewest in the league). They have no one ranked in the top 62 in the NFL in sacks. They are 30th in denying touchdowns in the red zone and dead last in defending first down, where they are allowing a league-high average of 6.43 yards.
Injuries have taken their toll, especially in the beleaguered secondary, which is on track to allow franchise records for touchdown passes (16 so far), passing yards (2,027 so far) and opposing passer rating (101.9).
Losing cornerbacks Tyrone Poole and Chad Scott and reserve safety Guss Scott to season-ending injuries hurt. Losing starting strong safety Rodney Harrison for the year in Week 3 was a crippling blow that the Patriots might not recover from this season.
Several personnel moves haven't worked out. Starks, who cost the Patriots a third-round draft pick, has appeared ill-suited to the defensive schemes, and free agent linebackers Monty Beisel and Chad Brown have lost their starting jobs inside. The draft wasn't a defensive windfall, either, as neither rookie cornerback Ellis Hobbs (a third-round pick) nor safety James Sanders (fourth round) has made a major contribution. However, both could be in line for more work over the season's second half.
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