They are not an elite NFL team. Not at this time. Maybe they can be again, but based on the way the New Orleans Saints pillaged them in the Superdome, the Patriots aren't in the conversation anymore about the best clubs in the game.
New Orleans thoroughly outclassed New England in a 38-17 laugher.
"There's obviously a big gap between us," Patriots quarterback Tom Brady said.
Drew Brees made the Patriots' defensive backs, who had been thriving lately, look like a bunch of XFLers. He bombed them for five touchdowns, something that has never been done to a Bill Belichick-coached team.
"They were better than we were in every phase of the game," Belichick said in the postgame news conference. "I don't know any other way to put it. They were better coached. They played better on offense, defense, in the kicking game, they covered better than we did."
Belichick punctuated his response with incredulity at the questions about how his team failed to compete.
"They were obviously the better team," he said. "You guys had to see that. You were at the game."
It was a massacre. The 11-0 Saints made a deafening statement they're the NFL's best team. The Patriots merely whimpered in their final opportunity to record a signature victory before the postseason.
"They put it to us," Patriots receiver Randy Moss said. "We got our butts beat by 21."
New England (7-4), a team that likely will have to venture away from Gillette Stadium in the playoffs, is 0-4 in true road games and has come up short against two measuring sticks in the past three weeks.
They literally failed to measure up two weeks ago in Indianapolis. That heinous loss to the Colts resonates even more now.
"When we have expectations set high like we do, we take one game at a time," Moss said. "But we really see each week what teams are made of. I think we've shown we're up for a second, we're down for a second, we're up, we're down. It's kind of wavy right now."
At least now we know why Belichick went for it on fourth down from his own 28-yard line in the waning minutes at Indianapolis. His beloved former linebacker, Tedy Bruschi, criticized Belichick afterward for not showing enough faith in his defense to punt and force Peyton Manning to go 70 yards or so for the winning touchdown.
Belichick appears justified in the light of the bonfire Brees ignited here.
The game spiraled out of control so badly in the second half that Belichick raised the white flag, almost begging Saints coach Sean Payton to stop scorching his defensive backs. Belichick removed Brady from the game and inserted undrafted rookie Brian Hoyer, a signal to the Saints he'd seen enough carnage for one evening.
Nevada doesn't have as much open real estate as what Brees saw laid out before him.
"A lot of it had to do with us beating ourselves. A lot," Patriots nose tackle Vince Wilfork said. "Don't get me wrong. They came out and made plays and capitalized on [mistakes]. But it seemed like at times we couldn't stop them. That's a frustrating feeling.
"A lot of the plays we gave up out there, I could've completed the ball, or I could have ran the ball. Make an offense earn it, and we didn't do that at time. It cost us."
New England's defensive backs still had their eyebrows after the game, but you half expected to see them singed off. They looked like a quintet of Deltha O'Neal impersonators.
"We had several blown coverages defensively," Belichick said. "They took advantage of enormous mistakes on our part that they turned into huge plays. You can't make those kinds of mistakes against a good football team. We made too many of them."
Brees completed touchdown passes to five teammates. He finished with a 158.3 passer rating, nearly triple Brady's paltry 55.0 rating. Brady didn't have a touchdown. He threw two interceptions. A lot of his passes sailed.
More mystifying is that the Saints fielded a slapdash defensive backfield and Brady came into the game having thrown for 300 yards in five straight games, one shy of the NFL record.
His streak was snapped by a secondary that included Patriots castoff Randall Gay and rookie Malcolm Jenkins at cornerback, and Mike McKenzie, a street free agent two weeks ago, at nickel. Gay didn't play in the second half because of a leg injury.
The Patriots' chances to knock off the Saints seemed to get stronger when the inactive list was announced. On it were usual starting cornerbacks Jabari Greer and Tracy Porter, and dangerous running back Reggie Bush. Pro Bowl left tackle Matt Light and running back Sammy Morris returned from injuries for the Patriots.
"It wasn't nearly as competitive as we all were expecting," Brady said.
Where was Wes Welker? One week after Welker had the best game of his life, he had his worst of the season.
What about Moss? One reception for 9 yards in the first half, three catches for 67 yards all told.
New England's top target was Sam Aiken, mainly a special-teamer. He had seven catches for 90 yards, the best numbers of his career. But when Aiken is making your best plays and has two fewer receptions than Welker and Moss combined, chances are the Patriots will break your heart.
Belichick coached with conviction throughout the game. He kept his offense on the field for two fourth downs on their opening drive. They converted both, including Laurence Maroney's 4-yard touchdown run to put them up 7-3.
Yet, a fourth-down play doomed them. Belichick opted to go for it on fourth-and-4 from the Saints' 10-yard line with 4:12 left in the third quarter. A field goal would have put the Patriots a touchdown and a field goal behind. But Belichick knew his team needed a touchdown to keep pace with Brees.
Brady tried to force a pass to Moss in the left flat. McKenzie, out of football for 11 months before the Saints signed him, broke it up.
"That changed the momentum of the game," Saints safety Darren Sharper said.
The Patriots have a favorable schedule ahead. Just one of their final five opponents owns a winning record, the 6-5 Jacksonville Jaguars.
Next up are the Miami Dolphins in Land Shark Stadium on a short week. If the Dolphins can pull out a victory, they would be one game behind the Patriots in the AFC East standings.
"We'll rally around each other," Wilfork said. "If not, it's going to be over real soon if we don't get it going. But I have faith in these guys that we're going to get it together."