Let's get something clear here for a moment: Despite being tied for the division lead at 5-3, the New England Patriots are still probably going to make the playoffs. Four of their last five games are against teams with losing records (including the winless Colts in the most-flexworthy Sunday Night game ever), and they still excel at beating up on hapless opponents. That's nine wins, right there, at the least. In a down year for the AFC, ten wins will likely get you a wild card spot, if not the AFC East crown.
But yesterday's game against the Giants served as graphic evidence that even if the Patriots make the playoffs, they probably aren't good enough to make the Super Bowl. Why not? Four things:
1. THE DEFENSE. You already knew the defense was lousy. But Tom Brady and Wes Welker were so prolific in the first quarter of the season that the horrid yardage totals opponents piled up against New England seemed irrelevant. Now that Brady and Welker have both leveled off, there's nowhere near as much room for error. You can't just say those passing totals are the result of teams trying to play catch-up with the Pats anymore. Teams are passing all over them regardless of situation, and the pass rush is nonexistent.
2. THE OFFENSIVE LINE. Brady was sacked twice yesterday, but that doesn't begin to tell the story of his day in the pocket. Brady was harassed into turning the ball over three times, and the pressure got so bad that New England eventually resorted to rolling Brady out to escape the rush. Tom Brady NEVER rolls out. The Giants were able to harass Brady using only four down linemen, just as they did back in the 2007 Super Bowl. And when you can pressure Brady like that, he isn't quite the quick-thinking dynamo he usually is. Speaking of which...
3. BRADY. For three quarters yesterday, Brady played as badly as I've ever seen him play. Not only that, he uncharacteristically lost his cool a few times, slamming down his water cup and all that fun stuff you do when you're REAL MAD. Usually, Brady brushes off mistakes and goes and pets his goat. This time, he seemed genuinely frustrated with himself. It hearkened back to his play against the Jets in the playoffs last season, when he was mysteriously tentative. Maybe something's distracting him. I think he hates his new haircut.
4. THE WIDEOUTS. After Welker, there's not a whole lot to be afraid of. Chad Ochocinco was utterly useless out there yesterday, so much so that it's a wonder he hasn't been cut yet. And despite being a savior last season, Deion Branch has faded in 2011. On Brady's final drive to the end zone yesterday, he went to tight end Rob Gronkowski three straight times. There's no wideout to run a fade pattern to. There's no one left if Welker gets triple covered. It's an issue.
So don't be surprised if the Pats fizzle out again in January. When you can't defend the pass and you can't protect the passer, you aren't exactly destiny's children.