Commentary

Patriots don't look like themselves

Wins that used to be automatic now seem anything but for Bill Belichick's team

Updated: September 17, 2012, 5:06 PM ET
By Jackie MacMullan | ESPNBoston.com

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- So when did it feel all wrong to you?

It occurred to me long before Stephen Gostkowski shanked a 42-yard field goal with one second left on the game clock, punctuating a shocking day of football in which the Arizona Cardinals danced out of Gillette Stadium as 20-18 winners over the New England Patriots and stunned 68,756 appalled patrons into stony silence.

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It used to be that Tom Brady would win because he was better than everyone else. It used to be that Bill Belichick would win because he was smarter than everyone else. But all the things we used to believe were automatic about the Patriots no longer feel that way.

They used to be redoubtable, but now there are doubts. Only two players remain from the Super Bowl-champion Patriots. It's a whole new ballgame in Foxborough. For crying out loud, Belichick even lost a challenge on Sunday. That never used to happen.

Against the Cardinals, something was off from the outset, particularly with a Patriots' offense that became so conservative it made Rush Limbaugh resemble a Massachusetts Democrat.

When did it feel all wrong?

Maybe it was as early as the opening drive, when maligned Cardinals quarterback Kevin Kolb, who earned his start by default when the injured John Skelton couldn't go, was afforded the better part of a long weekend to throw the ball to receiver Early Doucet on third-and-7, providing the visitors with a first down, field goal position and an early 3-0 lead.

Perhaps it was when New England lined up on offense with Julian Edelman starting in place of Wes Welker, who would become the franchise's all-time leading receiver later in the game, yet another curious development in the ongoing saga of the man Brady once termed the "heart and soul" of the team.

We should have had a clue this game might go sour when Brady threw a pick on the Patriots' first offensive play.

The game was rife with omens, none more sobering than the sight of tight end Aaron Hernandez being helped off the field after just 8 minutes, 11 seconds of action. Hernandez did not return, and this reporter witnessed him exiting Gillette Stadium on a golf cart cradling a pair of crutches and wearing a walking boot up to his knee. The initial diagnosis reportedly is a high ankle sprain, which means he will not be back any minute now.

Not good.

"They're not nearly as versatile without him," Cardinals safety Kerry Rhodes observed.

"Aaron is in there almost every play, so it changes [things] quite a bit," Welker conceded.

[+] EnlargeTom Brady
Jared Wickerham/Getty ImagesThanks in large part to the pressure applied by the Cardinals' defense, Tom Brady was limited to one touchdown and a 79.6 QB rating.

Come to find out, long before Hernandez was accidentally felled by his own teammate (Edelman) from behind, the players were experiencing their own sense of foreshadowing, doubts that sprouted well in advance of the coin flip and the kickoff.

"It started in the week in practice," cornerback Kyle Arrington revealed. "Everybody will probably tell you that everybody knew what they were doing, and we still couldn't even get it done in some instances on the practice field: blown calls, lack of communication or whatever the case is, and it showed up today in the game."

Wow. Blown calls and lack of communication in practice that were not corrected in time for a home game against an opponent that came in as a 14-point underdog. That might be the most damning news of all to come out of Sunday's stunner.

We knew this Patriots team was one of the youngest of the Bill Belichick era. We knew there would be some growing pains. But a 20-18 loss to Arizona at home?

That's not growing pains. That's an old-fashioned kick to the gut.

Give Kolb and the visiting Cardinals their due. Their defense was disruptive, their offense consistent. Kolb stayed essentially mistake-free and made plays when he needed to. Young Patrick Peterson is a whirl of talent who burned New England with a sensational interception that will garner multiple "SportsCenter" hits.

The Patriots' lowlights were plentiful: a blocked punt -- the first of Zoltan Mesko's career -- that led to an Arizona touchdown; two critical penalties on rock star Rob Gronkowski on the final drive, including a holding call that nullified a 30-yard Danny Woodhead touchdown; a series of miscommunications between Brady and his receivers that left him with a 79.6 quarterback rating.

Arizona's primary objective was to pressure Brady. Four sacks and six quarterback hits later, the Cardinals limited New England's franchise player to one TD.

"I was just so impressed with our defense, especially up front," former Patriots (and current Cardinals) defensive back James Sanders gushed. "We were able to penetrate their O-line a bit and get some hits on Tom.

"If you can throw their timing off, that's huge. Our whole game plan was to make [Brady] uncomfortable in the pocket."

To a man, the Cardinals' defensive players acknowledged the early loss of Hernandez altered their approach and enhanced their ability to stymie a historically potent Patriots arsenal.

"Hernandez is such a tough matchup," Rhodes said. "He's a tight end, but he runs like a receiver, so you can't put a small nickel on him because he's too big, but if you put a safety on him, it's a tough matchup also. I hope he's OK. Great football player.

"But we wanted to put pressure on Brady, and when Hernandez wasn't out there, that made it a little easier because we didn't need to worry how or where he would line up."

The Patriots' inability to put 7 on the board left their spoiled (and surprisingly grumpy) fan base, who had never seen a loss in 10 home openers at Gillette, booing the decision to run the ball, along with multiple decisions to punt on fourth down. The loudest cheers appeared to be reserved for Welker, who finished with five catches for 95 yards.

Asked if he was surprised to hear the hometown fans booing their beloved Patriots, Sanders responded, "Not really. I let the guys know, they have great fans here, but sometimes they get impatient. I knew in a tight game when we took it to them early and jumped on them the way we did, they [the fans] would turn on them a little bit. That helped us out a lot today."

In spite of their missteps, New England was handed an opportunity to win the game when Cardinals running back Ryan Williams fumbled after Brandon Spikes drilled him with 1:01 to play.

As the devastated young running back covered his head with his hands in horror, his veteran teammates immediately surrounded him.

"We told him, 'We're with you win or lose," tight end Todd Heap said. "He put us in position to win with the big first-down run" right before the fumble.

"I'm sure Ryan is excited for the win, but he still realizes he put us at risk," Heap said. "I told him he can feel good he didn't make the last mistake."

That fell to Gostkowski, who had nailed a 53-yard field goal just minutes earlier, but missed badly on his game-winning attempt. The veteran kicker has converted just two game-winning field goals in his career, and it was clear his failure to convert on Sunday shook him.

"I didn't pull through, and it stinks," he said.

Gostkowski has been presented with precious few opportunities to win games with his leg during his tenure in New England. He may have to wait a while for another chance.

The same will not hold true for his teammates. New England travels to Baltimore in a week's time and they have a lot of work to do. It begins in practice, where blown calls and lack of communication must be eradicated. The Patriots better find a way to grow up in a hurry. Brady, Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo and Welker need to impose their will on a group that looked disorganized and undisciplined.

"There's still a lot of football left to be played," a somber Brandon Lloyd offered. "It makes no sense to anchor on this game."

Of course, he is right. The season is young, just like this Patriots team. But if they lose more games like this, their story will get old in a hurry.

Jackie MacMullan

ESPNBoston.com columnist

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