Tomase: Patriots lose a game like this every year, but this one feels different, worse

John Tomase
September 16, 2018 - 11:45 pm
Bill Belichick

Jasen Vinlove/USA Today Sports

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This was me last September after the Chiefs pasted the Patriots in the 2017 opener, leading to a week of gleeful schadenfreude across the parts of the U.S. that aren't New England:

Patriots haters should tear it up this week. Snort rails off strippers. Re-enact Leo's wildest bacchanal from Wolf of Wall Street. Stagger naked into the nearest police station parking lot and surrender to the gods of synthetic weed.

Have a blast and party like it's 1999, when Tom Brady was just some bad-bodied Californian splitting reps in the Big 10 with a third baseman.

Get it out of your system, pass out in a private superfund site of your own making, and then take a long, cold shower, because guess what?

You're going to be wrong again.

And hey, whaddaya know? The Patriots reached the Super Bowl, where one snap from Malcolm Butler might've vanquished the Eagles, not that we need to go careening down that road again. The Patriots may have lost, but it's not like anyone predicting doom after the opener could exactly gloat as the green and white confetti fell.

That brings us to Sunday afternoon in steamy Jacksonville. The Jaguars clobbered the Pats in a rematch of the AFC title game. The 31-20 defeat was worse than last year's shellacking vs. the Chiefs because Jacksonville led wire to wire.

And that's why this time around I can't say everything will be OK. Best to seek reassurance elsewhere, because Sunday felt like the kind of loss we'll look back on when the season ends in disappointment and mutter, "We should've seen it coming."

"Disappointment" is a relative term, since even a bad Patriots team will win the AFC East and probably reach the conference title game with a healthy Brady. This year could certainly end that way once Julian Edelman returns and the defense makes its inevitable midseason course correction.

But this run will eventually end, and this team's many personnel flaws are glaring. The Jaguars employed an offensive game plan others should emulate, targeting weak links Eric Rowe and Patrick Chung in the secondary without mercy and maintaining pressure for most of the game.

Quarterback Blake Bortles will never be mistaken for John Elway, which makes his production so concerning. He completed 29 of 45 passes for 377 yards and four touchdowns. He hit receivers underneath in stride and when the opportunities presented themselves, attacked the Patriots down the field.

The Jags scored on touchdowns of 24 and 61 yards and each of their nine pass-catchers recorded at least one reception of 11 or more yards. They exposed the Patriots' depth when pass rusher Trey Flowers departed with a concussion. Bortles was never touched and also scrambled six times for 35 yards and multiple first downs.

Bortles was supposed to be one of the lousier QBs on the schedule, too. The Pats will face a better quarterback next week when they draw Matt Stafford and the struggling Lions. Miami's Ryan Tannehill is better. Indy's Andrew Luck is better. Kansas City's Pat Mahomes is better than anybody practically ever at the moment. After reprieves against the Bears and Bills, the Pats will get Aaron Rodgers. Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger looms in the final weeks. Who knows? Maybe rookies Josh Allen (Bills) and Sam Darnold (Jets) can at least make Brady break a sweat.

Outside of corner Stephon Gilmore, the defense lacks playmakers. The linebackers can't cover. The secondary is thin. In Sunday's heat, the pass rush wilted. With a new de facto coordinator in Brian Flores, there's no guarantee the Patriots make the necessary in-season adjustments to transform that weakness into a Super Bowl-winning strength.

The offense will improve when Edelman returns, but even with Brady's favorite target back in the fold, the receiving crew remains dangerously thin. An injury to Edelman or tight end Rob Gronkowski would be catastrophic.

Also contributing to the pessimism: a series of poor drafts have left the Patriots bereft of young talent. First-rounder Isaiah Wynn is already out for the season. College teammate Sony Michel made his highly anticipated debut and ran hard, but not particularly well. Only two players remain from last year's draft -- defensive ends Derek Rivers and Deatrich Wise. The 2016 draft officially entered disaster territory with the preseason release of No. 1 pick Cyrus Jones. Offensive lineman Joe Thuney, linebacker Elandon Roberts, and offensive lineman Ted Karras are all they have to show for those nine selections.

Add the elephants trying to appear unassuming in the corner of every Patriots discussion -- Brady's age, health, and relationship with Bill Belichick -- and you have a recipe for a team that will win most weeks on pedigree, at least until that advantage dissipates in the playoffs.

At that point, don't be surprised if you find your thoughts drifting back to Week 2 in Jacksonville, when an imperfect team with a mediocre quarterback showed the rest of the NFL how it's done.

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