CLEVELAND -- No one has been this happy to leave Cleveland behind since LeBron James.
The Patriots' pride-piercing 34-14 loss to the Cleveland Browns yesterday was worse than watching that self-serving LeBron Nike commercial, Clockwork Orange-style. But some perspective is needed after coach Bill Belichick and the Patriots were schooled by the Fightin' Manginis.
Halfway home, the Patriots are sitting at 6-2, tied for first place in the AFC East and the best record in the NFL. They've put themselves in the contender category, despite distractions and subtractions: Logan Mankins (conscientious contract objector for seven games), Kevin Faulk (torn anterior cruciate ligament in Game No. 2), Fred Taylor (inactive for five straight games with a toe injury), and Randy Moss (permanent out route). That's not even mentioning the preseason injuries to defensive starters Ty Warren and Leigh Bodden.
Are they a perfect team? Far from it. But just like beating Baltimore didn't allow them to pass go to the Super Bowl, losing to Cleveland doesn't end any hope of concluding the season in Arlington, Texas.
Even if you're upset about the Patriots having no answer for a Peyton whose last name isn't Manning, if someone told you this group would be 6-2 at the midway mark, you would have taken it. But what Peyton Hillis's 184-yard romp through the Patriots' defense, Rob Gronkowski's two fumble-ish plays, and Mangini's X's and O's outmaneuvering were all a stark reminder of is that there is a fine line between validating victories and disappointing defeats for these Patriots.
The margin for error for Belichick's rebooted Patriots is somewhere between slim and none. That was case during their five-game winning streak, which included an overtime win, self-immolation by San Diego, and a pair of fortuitous pass plays against Minnesota.
Juggernauts, they are not. Just like the rest of the league.
"In order to be a good football team we have to prove it on a week-by-week basis. You’re only as good as your last game," Brady told WEEI (850-AM) this morning in his weekly interview. "[Last week] we were great. God, we were the greatest team in football for... now, we [stink]. We can’t do anything. We're a terrible team and terrible coaches and players. We know what the truth is. The truth is when we play well we’re a pretty good team, when we play poorly we’re as bad as anybody else."
The Patriots are echoing the words of Aerosmith. They're livin' on the edge, and that's probably the way it's going to be for the rest of the season.
Fasten your seat belt for a fascinating second half that kicks off next Sunday night in Pittsburgh against the Steelers. That's the start of a four-game stretch for the Patriots that goes Steelers, Colts, Lions (on short rest and Thanksgiving Day) and then a rematch with Team Snack Pack, also known as the Jets, on Dec. 6.
The Patriots have traditionally played their best football under Belichick in November and December, so we'll know a lot more about the championship credentials of the Patriots at the three-quarter mark than we know now at mid-term.
The biggest caveat for the Patriots being taken seriously as a Super Bowl contestant is not getting crunched by Cleveland, but crunching some of their numbers after eight games, as they don't add up to a 6-2 team. We all know that stats are for losers, but how long can we dismiss the fetid ones attached to the Patriots' defense as inconsequential?
After getting rocked in Cleveland and allowing the Browns to set season-highs in yards (404), rushing yards (230), first downs (22), and time of possession (38 minutes, 8 seconds), the Patriots' defense ranks 29th in the NFL.
Subtract quarterback Tavaris Jackson's 33-yard scramble on Minnesota's final possession of the Patriots' 28-18, and the New England defense had allowed its previous three opponents to average just 2.8 yards per carry. But they couldn't contain the Browns yesterday, who rolled up 5.2 yards per rush. That put the Patriots back above allowing four yards per carry for the season, and that's far more alarming than any gimmick play working.
The Patriots are still last in the league in defensive third-down conversion, as opponents have converted 48.1 percent of the time. Further indication they sometimes have a hard time getting off the field is that they've allowed 16 scoring drives of 10 plays or more, the most in the NFL.
On the other hand, the offense has something to prove in the second half as well, especially considering the Steelers, entering tonight's game against the Bengals, are allowing the fewest points per game in the NFL this season.
The Brady-led offense sputtered like a junkyard jalopy against the Browns and has topped 400 total yards just once this season. Even with Brady having an MVP-type season, the Patriots rank 20th in total offense (324.4 yards per game). In the surprising stat of the day department, they're averaging as many yards passing per game as the quarterback-accursed San Francisco 49ers (217.2).
Like his team, Brady's margin for error is microscopic with a pair of rookie tight ends, a second-year receiver, a convalescing Wes Welker, and a gimpy Deion Branch to catch his passes. The term "wide open" has been erased from the local football lexicon for the time being.
By nature New Englanders are negative, but as Rosevelt Colvin used to say, "Calm down." Yes, yesterday was a lost opportunity for the Patriots. It doesn't mean the season is lost though. Far from it.
We know the rest of the schedule, but how it plays out from here on out for TB12 and the Patriots is still TBD.
At this point, we know they're better than halfway decent. They're halfway good.
...That's what the Patriots have when it comes to picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, which starts Thursday. After all those years of stockpiling picks the way a survivalist does non-perishables the Patriots have just five picks in this year's draft, thanks to Band-aid trades for Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco and Aqib Talib. Five picks would be the fewest draft picks in franchise history. (Part of that is attributable to the trimming of the draft to just seven rounds in 1994). Further complicating matters is that two of the Patriots' greatest needs are at wide receiver and cornerback, positions where they have sustained draft droughts. With that in mind, I'm convinced the Patriots are going trade back out of the first round of a quanity-over-quality draft where you're just as likely to pick a Pro Bowl player in the second and third round as you are in the first round.