By Rich Levine
So far this season, the Patriots have beaten an average NFL team at Gillette Stadium. They've lost to a very good team on the road. They've struggled with, but eventually beaten, a very bad team at Gillette.
Not exactly the greatest sample when you're trying to gauge the quality of an NFL contender. They won both games they should have won, they lost the one they should have lost, and over the course of those three games we didn't learn much.
Seriously, what do you know about the Patriots now that you didn't already know by the end of training camp?
That the defense has issues? That the secondary is undersized and often overmatched? That they struggle on the road? That unless Tom Brady plays out of his pigtails, there's a very good chance that they'll lose?
We already knew that stuff. The issues are nothing new.
What we still haven't learned, or what, at this point, we're still left to ponder, is whether those issues are something the Patriots can overcome. Because let's face it every team has issues. The question is whether, over time, a team can gel around those shortcomings; either improve them, or develop some kind of scheme that best masks them. OK, that's pretty obvious. But that's where we are with the Pats. We know the problems; we're just not sure if there's a solution.
Common sense says there's not. I mean, even in victory, there was something so fishy about the way the Pats played last Sunday. That was reinforced by how easily the Jets ran train on Buffalo yesterday afternoon. Throw in the fact that the Bengals lost to the Seneca Wallace-led Browns and the significance of both Patriot wins took a huge hit.
It's just looking more and more like it's not the Pats year. That doesn't mean they can't sneak into the playoffs, or have a couple games that leave us saying, "You know, these guys can be a pretty good team!" But at the same time, try and picture Devin McCourty and Kyle Arrington lined up across from Greg Jennings and Donald Driver four months from now in Dallas. Doesn't that feel wildly out of reach?
But it is early. We still can't be sure. As of right now, despite every instinct and ounce of logic in my brain, I'm not ready to count out the Pats. This team has significant strengths. They have weapons and playmakers and the football minds to find something that clicks. You'd be crazy to cash in all your faith. If you did, you wouldn't be a fan.
And that brings us to tonight.
A win over the Dolphins won't make the season regardless of how the game plays out, the Patriots problems will still exist but a win will mean that they CAN win; that they can go on the road, within the division, and find a way to defeat a solid defensive team, with a strong running game, quality quarterback and one of the biggest, most athletic and talented receivers in the game. With a win, we'll take a step back from the ledge, and take a longer, closer look at what we have in Foxboro.
Last week the Jets showed us that a good team can go into Miami and come out with a victory, and if the Pats can follow suit, we'll have no choice but to believe, or at the very least cautiously extend our faith. A win, especially heading into the bye week, would be bigger than Vince Wilfork's ass.
But as beneficial as a victory would be to the psyche of Pats fans, a loss would be 10 times more crushing.
A loss reinforces all our insecurities. It takes those questions that have lingered since the start of training camp Can they overcome the lack of defensive depth? Can the secondary handle a legitimate passing attack? Can they win on the road? Can they win if Brady isn't more perfect than Curt Henning? and brings us ever closer to conceding that there are no answers; or just that the answer's "no" across the board.
With a loss, the Patriots become the 2010 Red Sox; a team that we know, deep down, doesn't have what it takes, but that we keep giving every chance in the world to prove us wrong. We make excuses and extend once firm deadlines for them to turn it all around, only to be left disappointed and dissatisfied.
With a loss, it becomes a lot easier to gauge the Patriots status as a realistic Super Bowl contender, and a lot harder to take them seriously.