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For better ... or for worse?

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  September 21, 2009 03:23 PM

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FOXBOROUGH -- Eyes fixed on the floor and shoulders hunched forward, Bill Belichick slumped through the door this morning at Gillette Stadium. His tone as morose as ever, the coach of the Patriots reluctantly reflected on yesterday’s loss to the Jets, his mood as gray as his trademark sweatshirt.

He looked like he'd been pondering the question that matters:

What does the future hold for this team?

"I think there were things that happened all game,’’ Belichick said of the breakdowns in the 16-9 loss at Giants Stadium. "It happened on all downs and it happened at all field positions, and it happened in all three phases of the game."

Said the coach a short time earlier, "Overall, we just need to get better. That’s the only way to put it."

We all know that, of course. And yet, for the first time in a long time with Tom Brady at quarterback, we must wonder not when the Patriots will sufficiently improve, but if. The Pats entered this season with as many questions as any year in recent memory, with significant turnover on defense and a quarterback coming off knee surgery. Now here we are, two games into the season, and the Pats are a heck of a lot closer to 0-2 than they are to 2-0.

Belichick certainly was not expecting this. No way, no how. The Patriots yesterday held the Jets to 16 points -- "It wasn’t the worst defensive effort we’ve had here, but it wasn’t good enough,’’ said the coach – but they did nothing on offense. Tom Brady completed just 48.9 percent of his passes and the Pats were called for four delay-of-game penalties -- is former Bruins coach Dave Lewis the new offensive coordinator? -- and the Jets controlled the ball for 17:51 of the second half.

This season, despite the injury to Brady, the Patriots seemingly needed to rely on their offense early. New England has undergone significant change on defense, and Brady’s return essentially means that the offense is back intact. The most likely scenario was that the Pats would outscore opponents early in the season, relying on the high-flying antics of Brady, Randy Moss and Wes Welker while outscoring opponents through the first two months. The defense would have time to jell and to catch up.

Now the Pats offense is struggling, having produced just two fire-drill touchdowns via the air in two weeks. Yesterday, the Pats did not find the end zone at all. After Jets safety Kerry Rhodes all but challenged the Pats to a fight last week, cornerback Darrelle Revis went out and almost single-handedly took Randy Moss out of the game. Think about that for a minute. Once the most fearsome bully on the block, the Pats now cannot stand up to Revis and Butthead.

Meanwhile, the Pats got outplayed on special teams and were picked apart on the first drive of the second half, when the Jets scored the only -- and decisive -- touchdown of the game.

"We’re just not doing things as well as we need to do 'em,’’ Belichick said. "In a close division game like yesterday, that makes all the difference.’’

Ah yes, the division. Once the personal playground of your New England Patriots, the AFC East now seems to be anything but. In Week 1, against a Bills team projected to be a doormat, the Pats needed two touchdowns in the final two minutes to escape with a one-point win. Now they have been pushed around by the Jets, who had not won a game against the Pats at the Meadowlands in eight years. The Miami Dolphins, who won the division a year ago, came to Foxborough last season and throttled the Pats in the game that launched the wildcat offense.

For the Pats, there are simply no more gimmes against the teams they once dominated with relative effortlessness.

Naturally, there is still a great deal of football to be played. In the short term, it just isn’t going to get any easier. This week, the Pats must deal with the Atlanta Falcons, who appear to have one of the more balanced and potent offenses in the league. Then the Baltimore Ravens come in. After that, the Pats travel to Denver for the Josh McDaniels reunion before the Tennessee Titans come to Foxborough in Week 6. On paper, at least, the disheveled New England offense will continue to see some good defenses.

Yesterday, dressed in jeans and Birkenstocks to go along with his gray sweatshirt, Belichick wore the look of a frustrated, agitated man. He said even less than usual. Belichick teams are known for playing their best football in November and December, when the games grow in importance and the coaching has taken hold. There is still every chance that these Patriots will be playing meaningful games then, though something is now indisputably clear.

The Patriots have a lot of work to do.

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Updated: Mar 1, 07:24 AM

About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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