NFL Winners and Losers: Are we sure the Patriots can turn this around?

We keep expecting the New England Patriots to fix all their problems, which are glaring at this point. Consistent greatness for 16 seasons has earned them that benefit of the doubt.

We’ve seen them play poorly, for short stretches, and then come out of it. Sometimes they look like they’re cooked and end up winning a Super Bowl. We assume Bill Belichick can figure out the answers because he’s perhaps the best coach ever. We assume New England will be OK because they have Tom Brady, and he’s perhaps the greatest quarterback ever. At halftime of NBC’s “Sunday Night Football,” former Pats safety Rodney Harrison said, “What do you always say about the Patriots? They always make adjustments. And they will make this adjustment.” It’s reasonable to think that. New England has always figured it out in the past.

But what if the Patriots aren’t that good this season?


When you look at the standings you’ll see something weird. The Patriots are tied with the New York Jets and behind the Buffalo Bills. The Jets and Bills looked so bad before the season, people thought they were tanking the year. Others thought the Patriots might have a 19-0 season in them. But the Patriots haven’t been good yet. We’re a quarter into the season.

You’d be hard pressed to find a worse stretch of three home games in the Belichick era than the Patriots have turned in so far this season. They were embarrassed at home in the opener by the Kansas City Chiefs. They needed every break possible to beat the Houston Texans in the final minute of Week 3. Then they lost again to the Carolina Panthers in Week 4, and the Patriots were fortunate to be tied at the end. They got outplayed by the Panthers. Brady tried to drag them to another win and he couldn’t do it.

Brady is fantastic, but you can’t keep asking a 40-year-old quarterback to perform miracles every week. He needs help.

Tom Brady played well against the Panthers, but the Patriots still fell to 2-2. (AP)

The defense has been a sieve. It’s not just a bad defense. It’s not just the worst defense in the league so far. It’s on pace to be the worst defense since the NFL merger. The Patriots are allowing 456.8 yards per game. The 2012 New Orleans Saints – and anytime we’re talking defense and “2012 Saints” comes up, it’s not good – allowed 440.1 yards per game. That’s the most in since 1970. Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, who did practically nothing against the Saints in Week 3, had 316 yards and three touchdowns. And that was without Greg Olsen, his best target.

How did this happen? The Patriots allowed the fewest points in the NFL last season. Among their starters in last season’s Super Bowl, eight returned. Rob Ninkovich retired, but Ninkovich shouldn’t make that big of a difference. Logan Ryan left via free agency, but the Patriots gave replacement Stephon Gilmore a much bigger contract than Ryan got from the Tennessee Titans. Linebacker Shea McClellin is on injured reserve, but Kyle Van Noy played more snaps than McClellin in last season’s Super Bowl, so that’s not a seismic change either.

The Patriots are much, much, much worse on defense, and it doesn’t make a ton of sense.

Patriots fans don’t like hearing it, and they’ll rightfully point out that the team won a Super Bowl without them, but perhaps trading players like linebacker Jamie Collins and pass rusher Chandler Jones is showing now. Flowers is a good player and Deatrich Wise is promising but the Patriots’ league-worst defense could use another pass rusher like Jones at this point. They could use anyone who could make plays. Gilmore had a key penalty on the Panthers’ game-winning drive Sunday and communication issues with him and the rest of the secondary have led to numerous big plays. Butler started the season so slow he was temporarily benched. When the Patriots needed to get off the field in the final three minutes Sunday, they couldn’t. The championship formula on defense last season hasn’t shown up.

Being 2-2 at this point in the season is far from a death sentence, especially in the AFC East. Nobody outside of Buffalo expects the Bills to win the division. But anything short of another Super Bowl championship this season is a failure for the Patriots. Maybe that’s unfair, but that’s the bar the Patriots have set. After Week 1, we figured Belichick would figure out the problems. After a Week 2 win against the Saints, there were the same issues in Week 3 and we figured Belichick would fix them. Now we’ll go into Week 5 asking Belichick to cure all that ails the Patriots.

Maybe he will. He’s a great coach. But after seeing three awful home performances in a row it’s worth wondering: What if the Patriots aren’t that great this season?

Here are the rest of the winners and losers from Week 4 of the NFL season:

WINNERS

Larry Fitzgerald: If Fitzgerald retires after this season, he’ll have his reasons. But it won’t be because he can’t play anymore.

Fitzgerald, who played well against Dallas last Monday night, had one of the greatest catches of his career on Sunday, and there are many to pick from. In overtime of a horrendous game against the San Francisco 49ers, Fitzgerald gave us a great highlight. With time running out in overtime, Fitzgerald made a fantastic leaping 19-yard touchdown catch to win the game. Had the Cardinals lost and fell to 1-3, their season would have been in a lot of trouble.

(Quick aside: We saw Sunday why the new 10-minute overtime rule is bad. The 49ers had a long drive and a field goal, leaving the Cardinals with little time to match the field goal or score a touchdown. Eliminating five minutes from overtime periods isn’t some panacea for player safety. It makes the product worse.)

Fitzgerald is a clear Hall of Famer, and he deserves to go out on top. If this is his final season, his game-winning catch will live on as a great memory of how fun it was to watch him play.

New Orleans Saints defense: Surprising to see this unit in the “winners” spot, considering it’s been a while since this group earned any kudos. But for a second straight week, the Saints looked good on defense. Yeah, that’s strange to say.

In Week 3 we were worried about Cam Newton’s struggles against the terrible Saints. In Week 4, we laughed at Miami Dolphins quarterback Jay Cutler’s struggles against the Saints in London. Maybe it’s time to give the Saints some credit.

The Saints do have talented players. Cameron Jordan is a fantastic end. Cornerback Marshon Lattimore was a smart first-round pick. Guys like linebacker A.J. Klein and cornerback Ken Crawley are playing hard and made plays Sunday. It’s hard to believe the Saints can keep this up all season – it is still the same unit that allowed a passer rating of 141.4 through two weeks – but they have to be thrilled to see some hope from a unit that has been a debacle for years.

Todd Gurley: Coming into this season, it was hard to know what to make of Gurley. He won NFL offensive rookie of the year. He was bad in his second season last year. He didn’t have more than 85 yards rushing in any game and averaged 3.2 yards per carry.

We should have known that a Jeff Fisher-to-Sean McVay coaching change would be a positive, and Gurley has to be thrilled to finally play in an actual NFL offense.

Gurley had a monster game in an upset win over the Dallas Cowboys. He had 121 yards rushing, 94 yards receiving and a touchdown. According to NFL spokesman Randall Liu, the only players to have at least 575 yards from scrimmage and seven touchdowns four games into a season are Jim Brown (1958, 1963), Emmitt Smith (1995) and Gurley. Good company.

The Rams look like an entirely different team with McVay coaching them. And it’s nice to see Gurley looking like a star again. There’s no reason to believe he won’t keep this up all season.

Sean McDermott: Any first-year head coach wants to get off to a good start. But nobody would have been upset at McDermott if he hadn’t had a great first season with a Buffalo Bills roster nobody thought much of.

So far, Buffalo has to be thrilled with its hire. McDermott has led his team to a 3-1 start, and the Bills are a barely incomplete pass to Zay Jones in a close game against Carolina from being 4-0. If there were questions about the Bills, they’re probably gone after a 23-17 win at the Atlanta Falcons.

The Falcons were one of only two undefeated teams left after Week 3, and after Sunday the Kansas City Chiefs stand alone. The Bills played a strong game on defense and made enough plays on offense to win. It helped that the Falcons lost receiver Julio Jones and Mohamed Sanu to injuries early on, but it was still a quality win for the Bills.

The Bills gave McDermott a lot of power right away even though he was a first-time head coach. So far, that looks like the right move.

LOSERS

Los Angeles Chargers and New York Giants: Are the Giants the East Coast Chargers, or are the Chargers the West Coast Giants? Either way, they’re both 0-4 with a bunch of terrible, gut-punching losses between them.

The Giants’ season is practically over after Sunday. They had a spirited comeback to take the lead after a terrible start against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and then their high-priced defense couldn’t stop the Bucs at the end. Nick Folk (barely) made a game-winning field goal as time expired. That’s the second straight week the Giants have lost on a field goal on the game’s final play.

The Chargers didn’t lose on a last-second missed kick this time, like they did in the first two weeks. They just had the Philadelphia Eagles quietly put them to sleep by taking a knee at the end in a 26-24 loss. All the Eagles fans in attendance cheered, which probably stunk for the Chargers because it was a “home” game and their stadium in Carson was filled with Philadelphia fans. The Chargers have been within one score in the fourth quarter of all four games and have lost all four. Three of the Chargers’ losses have come by a combined seven points.

History shows it’s almost impossible for 0-4 teams to make the playoffs. Maybe the Chargers or Giants can pull off that miracle. But it probably won’t happen, and they’ll regret some excruciating early season losses.

Carl Lawson’s teeth: Lawson, a rookie Cincinnati Bengals end, doesn’t wear a mouthpiece. That’s relevant to this story.

As Lawson was bringing down Cleveland Browns quarterback DeShone Kizer, he realized he was going to need some dental work.

“When I was bringing him down, I just see my teeth in the air for like two seconds,” Lawson told Katherine Terrell of ESPN.com. “I was like, ‘Holy crap.'”

Lawson was looking around on the field for his teeth, which were eventually recovered because a Cincinnati Enquirer photo by Sam Greene showed the training staff had them in a clear case. The tooth fairy will be busy tonight.


That’s about the only thing that went wrong for the Bengals on Sunday. They routed the Browns 31-7. After a close loss to the Packers last week, the Bengals are 1-3 but things seem to be looking up. The opposite is true for the Browns, who have looked horrendous for three straight weeks and are 0-4. You’d like to see the Browns stay the course with coach Hue Jackson, but that will be a tough sell if there are no signs of progress this season. So far there have been none.

Joe Flacco: There are few absolutes in the NFL, but one of them is that you never want your quarterback saying this after a game.


It wasn’t a good day for the Ravens. A week after getting blasted by the Jaguars, the Ravens were dominated at home by the Pittsburgh Steelers 26-9. The Ravens have two touchdowns in two games and one was a meaningless score in a 44-0 game against Jacksonville. Flacco threw for 235 yards on Sunday, which is a big step up from the 28 he threw for in Week 3. It’s not all Flacco’s fault because he has little around him, but reality is that it’s all on Flacco’s shoulders to improve the offense.

That won’t be easy. Flacco has never been that type of quarterback. He dealt with a bad back in August, and you have to wonder if that’s affecting him now. But there’s not much else the Ravens can do (although giving intriguing running back Alex Collins more than nine carries might be a start). After Flacco’s brutally honest assessment of his own play Sunday, he seems to know that too.

Tennessee Titans: Losses happen. You play at a tough divisional opponent and they’re too much for you. Sometimes games even get away from you and the final score is ugly.

But 57-14, Titans? Really?

The Houston Texans showed Sunday they’re still the team to beat in the AFC South. Deshaun Watson looked like the league’s next star at quarterback. But a lot of Sunday’s game was about the Titans, too.

Tennessee did a good job adding pieces after a promising 2016 season. It looked like a clear breakout candidate. The Titans have flashed that in spurts, but we should probably hold our enthusiasm for the Titans after they lost by 43 points to a division rival. Not only that, the Titans had quarterback Marcus Mariota suffer a hamstring injury that he’ll get an MRI on. If Mariota misses time, the Titans aren’t going to win much with Matt Cassel.

There was justified excitement about the Titans after three weeks. A lot of the air is out of that balloon now.

New York Jets‘ tanking plans: The Jets can’t even get tanking right. You’re supposed to lose, guys.

The Jets are 2-2 after an overtime win over the Jacksonville Jaguars (the Jags need to work on following up impressive wins), which is two more wins than some people expected from the Jets this season. Coach Todd Bowles, who looked like he was in an impossible spot with this roster, has done a remarkable job so far.

Maybe the Jets are going to be surprisingly good this season and stay in the playoff race deep into December. If so, great for them. But it seems like they’re winning just enough games that we’ll look up after the season and ask, “How did the Jets blow getting a top-five pick and a shot at a franchise quarterback?”

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Frank Schwab is the editor of Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at shutdown.corner@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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