The Patriots have been compared to the Empire from Star Wars, is the Death Star getting ready to explode?

What is going on in New England? The Patriots are now 4-3, and are solely in first place in the AFC East but they have not looked like the juggernaut many expected, at least not consistently.

In the second half of the Bills’ game, the Patriots looked like a machine that absolutely destroyed the Bills’ D, it almost could’ve been called illegal. It seemed like the Patriots were getting ready to rape and pillage. But against the Cardinals and Seahawks, Tom Brady and the Patriots’ offense look downright inept, unable to get the ball moving whatsoever.

In the Patriots’ 3 loses, they have been defeated by a total of 4 points. Two of the games were determined by a combined foot of field goals. The Patriots’ losses also have all come after leading, which may be the biggest surprise of these games. For years, the Patriots have always been a team that you could count on to hold on to a lead, mainly by keeping the pedal to the metal on offense and “running up” the score, but they haven’t been able to do that this season thus far.

So what is the problem? Let’s start on offense, a unit that most people have given a pass to for the past few weeks but are as much to blame as anyone. Tom Brady is one of the best quarterbacks to ever put on pads (in my view the best but that is a topic for another time). He made his living coming up big in big moments (Super Bowl 36 being the best example). But as of late it seems like he has lost a bit of that magic (to be fair he did do the job late against the Jets). In my view, Tom has been holding the ball far too much, possibly looking off easy completions to look for a big play opportunity.

On the ground, Stevan Ridley and Brandon Bolden have been a surprise nationally, but to fans of the team it shouldn’t have been a shocker. The emergence of a solid ground game has been a nice thing to see on a team that hasn’t had a legitimate rushing attack since Corey Dillon (coincidence that that was the last time the Patriots won a Super Bowl?). But the rushing attack has not been consistent enough, and it needs to be if the Patriots want to make it to New Orleans. The Patriots have rushed for under 100 yards in three games, those games being their three loses.

The most concerning thing to me however has been their inability to finish off games. They have been flat-out awful running the four-minute drill to close out opponents and it has really been sickening to watch. They let the Baltimore and Seattle games slip right through their hands because of terrible play on offense in the final minutes, they need to finish, they need to play 60 minutes of good football.

Now on to the coaching staff. Aside from poor, head-scratching play calls from offensive coordinator and prodigal son Josh McDaniels, the coaching staff as a whole has been poor this season. Perhaps the most egregious blunder being some of the worst clock management and decision-making I’ve seen in the Seahawks’ game (I still don’t understand not taking the 3 points at the end of the half). Bill Belichick is the best coach in history in my view, but he just has not been the same this year and that’s just a fact.

Now let’s get to the meat of it; this defense is bad, real, real bad. But let’s start with the good. The front seven has been much improved this season. Rookie Chandler Jones has been what I expected and much more so far. Brandon Spikes has been a major presence on the field and has, thus far, been able to stay healthy. Rob Ninkovich continues to convince me is a clone of former Patriot Mike Vrabel. Jerod Mayo and Vince Wilfork continue to be both veteran leaders and contributors to the unit. They aren’t the problem. The problem is, and has been for 4 years now, the secondary.

To be fairly blunt about it, I don’t think Belichick is playing an NFL-caliber secondary every week. This week (due to injuries to starting safeties Patrick Chung and Steve Gregory) the Patriots were forced to start two rookies at the position. One was Tavon Wilson, a surprise second round pick who was not at the NFL combine or any of the college all-star games. The other was Nate Ebner, a surprise sixth round pick from Ohio State who barely played a full year of football as a Buckeye. He was picked by Belichick because of his star ability on the Ohio State rugby team. There is a big time problem there, and a lot of it should be blamed on Bill Belichick, the general manager.

Since 2000, the Patriots have selected 9 defensive backs in the first 3 rounds of the draft. Three remain on the team, only one other remains playing in the NFL. When you can’t pick a position in the draft, and it is obvious that they just can’t find a good DB in the draft, you have to try and fill that position in free agency. Now, they did try that this season with Steve Gregory, and while some are killing him, I think he’s done an OK job thus far (if he can ever get on the field again I can give a better review of him). But we need more help than the second best safety from the San Diego Chargers.

This secondary as it stands is a joke; a cruel, sick and twisted joke. The Patriots have allowed more plays of 20 yards or more than any other team in the NFL and all of those plays have been through the air. They made Russell Wilson look like Joe Montana, Mark Sanchez look like Joe Namath and they made Peyton Manning look like…well OK like Peyton Manning. But the buck needs to stop here. There isn’t much that can be done this season, Belichick can try his best to coach these guys up (and God bless him if he can) but they need some help next offseason even if this team can find some way to bring home a Lombardi.

(Last offseason, Dashon Goldson re-signed with the 49ers. Before doing so he made a trip to Foxboro and reportedly was offered a contract that he obviously decided to decline. Goldson is now a part of one of the best defenses in football. A team that has given up 13 plays of 20 or more yards compared to the Patriots’ total of 39. They can’t be afraid to sign a young player to a lot of money. They can’t hope we find another aging player like Rodney Harrison who nobody thinks is any good anymore and hope he still has something left, they just don’t have the time and the fans just don’t have the patience. )

The problem might be the coaching in this case too. Maybe the scheme that Bill Belichick is teaching his young DBs is too complex for them too handle and it is hindering their ability to play. In 2010, Devin McCourty had a lights-out rookie season. It wasn’t just all of the interceptions he had; he was a great cover corner. I have never seen a Patriots’ cornerback run with his man like McCourty did his rookie year. However, after another year in the system and another year under Belichick, McCourty regressed and had an awful 2011 season. McCourty continues to struggle this year and I have to think that some of this has to be blamed on Belichick, on Matt Patricia the defensive coordinator and on Josh Boyer the defensive backs coach.

A lot of people have been saying this is the end of an era for the Patriots, and as much as it pains me to say it, it sure does look like it even after a victory. The defense continues to regress, and the offense continues to struggle. However, this season is not lost. The Giants have showed twice now that it doesn’t matter what you do in the regular season, you just need to get hot at the right time and maybe New England can do that. The Patriots’ have two seemingly difficult games left on the schedule (the Niners and the Texans) and lucky for the Pats, they are both at home.

Despite a pathetic start to the season, the Patriots’ still have a legitimate reason to be called the best team in the AFC. Who else would it be? The Ravens? They have lost just about every key person on their defense. The Steelers? They sure haven’t looked the same this year. The Texans probably have the best argument but Green Bay dismantled them so they sure aren’t perfect.

The Patriots will win the AFC East, will make the playoffs and will probably also have a first-round bye. The question is will they make it farther. Right now, I would probably guess no. The secondary is just so bad right now I can’t imagine them being able to hold together well enough to even make it to the AFC championship game. But maybe they can do what the Giants have done to them twice now, get hot in the playoffs and bring home that Lombardi to Foxboro again, maybe. Right now, I have my doubts.