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Patriots' issues go beyond officials

Posted by Matt Pepin, Boston.com Staff  September 24, 2012 09:54 AM

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Patriots coach Bill Belichick prides himself on ignoring the noise, and the rumbling around Foxborough this week is already higher than it has been in years. The referees were terrible. The defense caved in. The offense went soft. And amid a mountain of yellow hankies that had Belichick justifiably seeing red, the Patriots emerge this Monday with their first losing record in more than nine years.

NFL officials have completely lost control, of course, and for a few moments there in Baltimore on Sunday night, the esteemed coach of the Patriots was right there with them. Can you possibly blame him? Coming off a stunning home loss to the Arizona Cardinals last weekend, the Patriots held a 27-21 lead over the Baltimore Ravens late Sunday night. New England had a first-and-goal from the Baltimore 4-yard line with 40 second to go in the third quarter, a mere 12 feet from a 34-21 lead that could have all but sealed a victory.

What happened in the subsequent 15 minutes was a late-game meltdown not seen in these parts since the infamous fourth-and-2 at Indianapolis in 2009, resulting a 31-30 Patriots defeat that has triggered an endless succession of questions.

We don't normally encourage this kind of thinking in this generally unyielding space, but you have every right to blame the referees this Monday. At least to some degree. Take a good look around the NFL this morning, and what you will find is a league where the Arizona Cardinals are 3-0, the Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers just 1-2. On Sunday, Tennessee outgunned Detroit. Minnesota picked off San Francisco. Three games were decided in overtime and six on the final play.

The league is in a relative state of chaos, and the simple truth is that the referees are a significant part of the reason. Teams simply are not sure what constitutes a penalty anymore, which must be especially infuriating for the most detail-oriented coaches in the game, like Belichick, who pride themselves on knowing not only the composition of a weekly officiating crew, but its tendencies.

“I’m not going to comment about that. You saw the game. What did we have, 30 penalties called in that game?" Belichick told reporters. He added, "You’ll have to talk to the officials about the way they called the game. Talk to the league about it.’’

Meanwhile, Patriots linebacker Brandon Spikes was thinking aloud via Twitter, where he wondered when the replacement referees would be returning to their regular jobs at Foot Locker.

Any and all criticism of the referees following Week 3 is completely inbounds. NFL owners and commissioner Roger Goodell invited this, so have at it.

As for the things the Patriots can actually control, there is a great deal to be desired there, too. The game was theirs. Once again, the Patriots had a six-point lead and the ball on the Baltimore 4-yard line with a first down on the final play of the third quarter. After Stevan Ridley lost four yards, the Patriots inexplicably ran again. Tom Brady's subsequent third-down completion to Wes Welker seemed curiously conservative, the Patriots content with taking a nine-point lead (30-21) when they might have led by 13.

Even then, the offense had more chances. After Baltimore failed to convert a fourth-and-1 at the New England 33-yard line with just under 11 minutes to play, the Patriots advanced to the Ravens' 40, where they had a first down with nine minutes to go. The Patriots ran once (for another minus-4) before two incompletions by Brady, leading to a Zoltan Mesko punt that pinned Baltimore at its 8-yard line, down two scores with 7:29 to go.

Over the remainder of the game - a period during which there were six penalties called (three on each team) over a span of seven minutes - the Patriots allowed a 92-yard touchdown drive and failed to convert a first down through the air or on the ground. (Their one conversion - shocker - came on a penalty, one of five such first downs by either team in the fourth quarter.) And with the game still in New England's grasp, trick-or-treat cornerback Devin McCourty committed a 27-yard pass interference penalty on third-and-9 from the New England 34-yard line, producing one of the few yellow flags in the fourth quarter that went uncontested.

Just like that, the Patriots turned back the clock to the first half of last season, when their pass defense was inept and McCourty took major steps backward. The Patriots didn't record a sack. Their run defense was surprisingly porous. And their offense was almost entirely reliant on Tom Brady.

Compounding matters, an out-of-his-mind Belichick grabbed official Rodney Russell as the zebra clone was scurrying off the field and, presumably, back to Foot Locker, leading one to wonder just how severely the Patriots will be punished.

And so, following his fifth Super Bowl appearance as New England's head coach and an offseason in which the Pats seemed to build a juggernaut, Belichick suddenly has a lot of noise to contend with. The play calling of offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. The officiating. The disappearance of the defense. Belichick takes it all onto the field this week for Sunday's matchup against the seemingly improved Buffalo Bills, a team that stunned the Patriots in Orchard Park, NY, last season and currently shares first place in the AFC East with the New York Jets.

At the moment, things are upside down in the NFL.

Even inside an insulated Gillette Stadium, the noise is reverberating off the walls.

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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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