By Michael Felger
The instinct is to say that the Patriots' defense is a "work in progress." Or that it's simply a developing unit going through some growing pains. Or some such cliche.
But let's be real.
The unit stinks right now.
The Pats weren't just inconsistent on defense in their 38-30 win over Buffalo on Sunday at Gillette Stadium. They were wretched. Do you understand how bad the Bills' offense wasis? The Bills scored seven points a week ago in Green Bay. They opened the season with 10 points at home versus Miami. They averaged just over 15 points a game in 2009 (23rd in the league).
And on Sunday they were the greatest show on turf.
The Pats the last few years have made a habit of allowing career days to mediocre quarterbacks, so this story is really nothing new.
But, somehow, this felt worse than usual.
The Pats couldn't stop the run (the Bills averaged 5.6-yards per carry), couldn't stop the pass (Ryan Fitzpatrick completed 71 percent of his throws) and couldn't stay clean on kickoffs (C.J. Spiller's 95-yard kickoff return kept the Bills in the lead in the second quarter). They missed tackles (did you see Roscoe Parrish bounce off Brandon Meriweather, Jonathan Wilhite and Gary Guyton to covert a third-and-18 in the first quarter?), they blew contain (did you see Jermaine Cunningham and Darius Butler get sucked inside on Spiller's 19-yard run in the second quarter?), and they allowed Bills' receivers huge amounts of real estate (take your pick).
Time and again, Tom Brady and the offense put the defense in position to put the game out of reach -- and they failed nearly every time.
The Pats' two fourth-quarter interceptions?
Please. They were gifts.
The first came when Fitzpatrick overshot his intended target at the goal line and the ball lofted perfectly into the hands of Pat Chung. Can of corn. The degree of difficultly was only slightly higher two series later when Fitzpatrick again threw high, this time into the waiting arms of the massively overrated Meriweather.
You can say the Pats "made plays" on those snaps, but I would beg to differ. They were more like fair catches.
Other than that, the Pats forced just one punt on the day. One. From the Bills.
Please note: I believe the Pats' defense is going to get better. I mean, how can it get any worse? The Pats currently rank in the bottom five in the league in points allowed (82 in three games), and Bill Belichick is just too good for the unit to be this bad for this long . . . Right? It's simple logic. At some point, the defense is going to evolve from being atrocious to simply mediocre. Mark it down.
The real questions are: How long is that process going to take; and can the unit ever be more than that?
We'll find out.
For now, it's scary how many players on defense have either flat-lined in their development, or gone in reverse.
Butler has gotten worse. He was removed from the startling lineup on Sunday in favor of Kyle Arrington, who was brutal in his own right.
Meriweather has gotten worse. He was benched last week, only to return to the starting lineup on Sunday and author perhaps the worse defensive play of the day, allowing Spiller to walk into the end zone in the second quarter on a simple bubble screen.
Jerod Mayo finally woke up in this game (nine tackles, one sack and one tackle for a loss), but is he the impact guy you thought he'd be as a rookie? Not yet.
We could go on. Has Jonathan Wilhite improved? No. Terrance Wheatley? Nope. Guyton? Questionable. Ron Brace? I guess, but only because he was at rock bottom to begin with. Chung? Sure. There's one. Name another. It's too early to talk about the rookies, although we have all be encouraged by Devin McCourty. Then again, McCourty gave up another touchdown on Sunday (a 37-yarder to Steve Johnson) and we all felt pretty good about Butler early on, too.
The ultimate success or failure of the Pats' rebuilding project on defense will be determined over the course of the next few years, so we have a ways to go with this story. But if you're concerned about the here and now, if you're still interested in contending for a championship this season, then these questions have more urgency.
When handicaping the division, we always look to the quarterback position and say the Pats have a huge advantage with Brady. And that makes sense. We'd all take him over Fitzpatrick, or Mark Sanchez, or Chad Henne. Hands down.
But here's the bad news.
Every starting quarterback in the division has now had a career day against the Pats. Fitzpatrick completed over 70 percent of his passes for the first time on Sunday. Mark Sanchez threw for three touchdowns for the first time last week and won. Chad Henne went over 300 yards for the first time last December and won.
In other words, what would you rather have: Brady versus the Jets defense, or Sanchez versus the Pats defense? Based on the scoreboard (the Jets have won two of the last three), it's hard to take Brady -- as crazy as that sounds.
Of course, the more pertinent question comes a week from today: Brady versus the Dolphins' defense, or Henne versus the Pats defense?
Again, we'll find out.
Read Felger's report card on Tuesday. Email him HERE and read the mailbag on Thursday. Listen to him on the radio weekdays, 2-6 p.m. on 98.5 the Sports Hub.