It's time for the Patriots to face facts, which, because of the great expectations brought on by their Super Bowl appearance last season, is going to hurt (and that's without even mentioning the New England Antichrist, Bill Parcells).
In their last 10 games, dating back to Super Bowl Sunday, the Patriots are 5-5. When quarterback Drew Bledsoe stepped to the line of scrimmage early in the fourth quarter in Minnesota on Sunday, he was leading an offense that had scored one touchdown in its previous 21 possessions. Having lost to Green Bay the previous Monday, New England emerged from the Metrodome in its make-a-statement week with consecutive losses to strong NFC Central teams. The Pats are 5-4, and with six of their remaining seven games against teams with winning records, the question is not whether they can win home field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs, it's whether they'll even make it to the postseason party.
Getting to the Super Bowl created a premier-team image that was misleading. The Patriots see themselves as an excellent team confounded by a few unlucky breaks in the season's first two months. "Everyone in this room," running back Curtis Martin said quietly but defiantly after Sunday's 23-18 loss, "thinks the only time we can lose is when we beat ourselves." But the proof is in the box scores. What the Patriots are is a good team—some weeks on Green Bay's level, but most weeks closer to Philadelphia's—that benefited greatly last January when the Broncos lost to the Jaguars in the AFC divisional playoffs. To get to the Super Bowl, New England beat Jacksonville, a matchup, in January weather in Foxboro, that the Patriots would probably win seven of 10 times. Playing at Denver anytime, New England might win two out of 10. Witness the 34-13 whipping the Broncos put on the Patriots at Mile High on Oct. 6, not to mention the 37-3 and 34-8 regular-season thrashings that were inflicted in '95 and '96 at Foxboro.
"We came into the season feeling, It's not whether we'll win, but by how much," tackle Bruce Armstrong said. "Now? We're not fooling anybody. A three-game losing streak is very serious in this sport."
The defense has played well enough to win most weeks, but the offense is schizophrenic. "We're just so shocked we're not getting more out of our offense," shaken first-year coach Pete Carroll said on Sunday. Before unloading on Bledsoe—who should shoulder his share of the blame here, but only his fair share—critics should look at the running game. On all but one of their 13 third-down situations through three quarters on Sunday, the Patriots faced third-and-five or longer. That's largely because the Vikings, who came into the game ranked 16th in the league against the run, held New England to 27 yards on 17 carries.
Of course, questions remain about Bledsoe's play in pressure games. And rightly so. SI picked 10 critical games in Bledsoe's five-year career and totaled the numbers. They're ugly. He has thrown six more interceptions than touchdown passes and has a quarterback rating of 62.8. Compare that with the lifetime ratings of Trent Dilfer (66.1) and Dave Brown (69.5), and you see why Bledsoe is feeling his first heat from the formerly fawning fans.
"What people fail to realize," Bledsoe said on the eve of the Minnesota game, "is that the reason big games are big is you're playing against good teams. The magnitude of the game doesn't change the way I prepare or feel going into the game. But I understand that criticism will be there with me and this team until we step up and win some of these games."
Last week two more chances came and went.
The End for Spielman?
The words conic out of Bills linebacker Chris Spielman's mouth in sharp, staccato bursts, without any trace of bitterness or self-pity, even though he may have played the last game of what could be a Hall of Fame career. They are words from another time, a time when no one had heard of salary caps.