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The Patriots Stink

The Patriots Stink
Credit: Jeffrey Beall

Fan message boards are notoriously alarmist; they’re the place where die-hards go to poke the bruise after a tough loss or question the merits of a shaky win. People who post pride themselves on not being deluded by loyalty or love.

The Patriots-specific sections of the Boston Sports fan forum “Sons of Sam Horn” is no different. While the passion and vitriol on display don’t offer solid proof that anyone has actually named his daughter “Belichick,” after a few hours perusing recent threads, it suddenly doesn’t seem beyond the realm of possibility that someone, somewhere, is cutting the sleeves off Patriots-branded onesies.

Perhaps the most important piece of information to be gleaned from the irritatingly named “Blinded by the Lombardis” message board is that the Patriots have a backup quarterback. Of course, every team has a backup quarterback; it’s the Patriots’ fans’ interest in Ryan Mallett that is surprising. “I’m not saying free Mallett or anything,” swears user Rico Guapo, “but … something is not right.”

“Something is not right,” despite the fact that the Patriots are leading their division, and are third overall in the AFC. True, being third this season means that you’re one of three teams in the conference above .500. But across the Patriots’ three losses, they’ve only been outscored by a total of four points. To me, that sounds like bad luck. To a fan—and here I’m quoting a very unhappy friend of mine—that’s one point away from “peak losing efficiency.”

The easy explanation is that Patriots fans are spoiled. That’s Tom Brady’s opinion: “They all count the same,” he said on the radio the next morning. “We’ve been on the losing end of a one-point game, a one-point game and a two-point game, so it’s good to win a three-point game. Maybe we just spoiled some people in the meantime because it’s hard to win, man. It’s hard to win.” Brady should know; he’s largely responsible for the spoiling.

Tom Brady’s rise was more unexpected than you might assume given the prevalent narrative about the Pats’ success under his leadership and his ability to smolder. A sixth-round pick in the 2000 NFL draft—he was 199th overall—Brady, who was so insecure after being forced to play backup at Michigan behind Scott Dreisbach and Brian Griese that he sought out a sports psychologist, began his rookie season as a fourth-string quarterback.

A year later he was leading the Patriots to their first Super Bowl win after Drew Bledsoe suffered a sheared blood vessel in a brutal hit in the second game of the season.

In the years since, Pats fans have come to expect something extraordinary from their team in general, and from Brady specifically. Mostly, he’s delivered. In Brady’s first four years as the Patriots’ starting QB, he won three Super Bowls. In 2007 the Patriots went 16-0—which was and remains the only undefeated run since the NFL expanded the regular season to 16 games. His overall record is 128-38. His lifetime passing rating is 96.4, the third-highest ever. He’s thrown for over 42,000 yards and 312 touchdowns over the course of 13 years in the league. He took the Patriots to the Super Bowl last year.

But Pats fans don’t want passing records. They don’t even want more Super Bowls, though surely that would help. They want magic—dark magic in the form of Brady-and-Belichick-orchestrated blowouts. They want to crush teams 52-7. They want to humiliate Tim Tebow.

Though they’re the NFL’s top-ranked offense—even using Football Outsiders’ more complicated stats, they’re doing extremely well—the Patriots are failing by being merely competent. They’re losing close games against strong teams: The Seahawks, who beat them 24-23, had the top-ranked defense by yards allowed when they met; the Ravens, who beat them 31-30, were starting a healthy Ray Lewis and running a surprisingly effective no-huddle offense. Competent, to a Patriots fan, is comparatively terrible.

So Pats fans are spoiled. That doesn’t mean they’re wrong.

Brady hasn’t been the same since knee surgery in 2008; he moves more cautiously in the pocket, crumples more readily in the face of pressure. He was picked off on his first pass in the home opener against the Cardinals, and twice in the loss against Seattle two weeks ago—once by Richard Sherman, who proceeded to taunt Brady on Twitter. (To be fair: bro does look mad.)

And Brady is just the most visible part of a perpetual motion machine that seems, at last, to be slowing down. The Patriots, of late, have gotten very good at blowing fourth-quarter leads: They’ve led at the end of the third in two of their three losses this season. Wide receiver Brandon Lloyd, picked up in the offseason as a deep threat, dropped three passes against the Jets. Both notoriously hickey-ed Rob Gronkowski and Wes Welker fumbled during what would turn into a rout of the Bills in week 4.

Most troubling are the ongoing woes in the Patriots’ injury-plagued secondary. In 2003, their defense gave up 14.9 points per game, good enough for first in the league. This year they’re giving up over 23 points on average; they rank 23rd. And there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence to back up the stats; just watch tiny—officially, he’s 5’11”—rookie Russell Wilson’s highlight reel against the Patriots in week 6.

Even beleaguered Jets QB Mark Sanchez turned in a surprisingly good performance on Sunday. For only the second time this season he completed more than 50 percent of his passes; his QB rating—which was, ominously, a 66.6 earlier this month, was a very respectable 90.3. He passed for 328 yards, a season high, proving my friend’s pregame description of the Patriots backfield as “the Mexico City Olympics for QBs”—in other words, a place where “everyone gets a personal best!”—incredibly prescient.

But in a league where several teams—the beleaguered Bills, who are 2-18 against the Patriots in the 2000s, come to mind—have never won a Super Bowl, no one want to listen to their whining. Yes, the 2012 Patriots are worse than their 2003 counterparts on defense, and worse than their 2007 counterparts on offense. The thing is, no one outside of the “Sons of Sam Horn” message boards cares. Including Tom Brady:

Miranda Popkey is on the editorial staff of Farrar, Straus and Giroux. She blogs about her love for Brett Favre (and occasionally other things) here. More by Miranda Popkey