By: Bob George/
November 12, 2006

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FOXBOROUGH -- Now when you hear someone talk about the impending end of the Patriot dynasty, they won?t sound like Chicken Little.

In what is usually a bounceback situation for the Patriots, where Tom Brady shakes off a bad game and comes back with a vengeance, instead it?s the Patriots looking like team which is seeing the rest of the league catching up with them. In many ways, the Patriots look no longer like the innovative, quietly lethal and astonishingly efficient football team they have been for the last five or six years. Now they look like an old war horse which looks like it needs to retire to stud and make way for the next stallion to take over the league.

The frosty exchange between Bill Belichick and Eric Mangini at game?s end (what, did you expect a Parcells-esque smooch?) pretty much summed up things on Sunday at Gillette Stadium. The Jets took it to the Patriots, and had just enough on offense to hang on for a 17-14 win, becoming the first team to send the Patriots to a second consecutive defeat since they themselves turned the trick on the Patriots right here four years ago. For the second straight week, the Patriots were victims of key turnovers, costly penalties and a team which was better prepared to play football than the Patriots were.

This may sound a bit harsh, given that the Patriots are still 6-3 with a great chance to win the division. But the Patriots are beginning to look like a team which may not really be among the top contenders for a Super Bowl win this year, and maybe beyond.

That said, here are the tough questions you the Patriot fan might want to ask.

Has Tom Brady lost his luster and is no longer among the best quarterbacks in the league?

Brady finally did not follow up a bad game with a rebound game. He did achieve an 84.9 passer rating and did complete 25 of 37 passes. But he did throw another interception, on a lousy throw which went behind Laurence Maroney. Part of the answer to this question will come later, but Brady was under a siege of blitzes all game long, such that the Patriots never really had an answer for. On the interception, there was a huge blitz coming in from the right side which forced Brady into a quick throw, but this is often times a play where Brady wouldn?t let a pass like this fly.

Are the Patriots no longer able to deal with injuries like they once used to?

You might say that the days of guys like Russ Hochstein, Randall Gay, Brandon Gorin and Jarvis Green stepping in and playing at or near the level of their starters are over. Once again, the Patriots are dealing with the loss of Rodney Harrison, and neither Chad Scott nor Artrell Hawkins were able to replace his ability to intimidate or help out with secondary assignments. Stephen Neal continues to be sorely missed at right guard, as run production and pass blocking are both continuing to suffer. At times, the Patriots had to go without both Ty Warren and Richard Seymour on the defensive line, and it helped Kevan Barlow gain 75 yards on 17 carries, which in the end proved critical and never should have happened in the first place.

Are the Patriots finally paying for the sins of letting go of all the great players they have had over the years?

You might say that the Patriots right now really and truly miss Deion Branch, and to a lesser extent, Ty Law. Perhaps the key juncture of the game took place early in the second quarter, when Brady hit Doug Gabriel for a left sideline pass which might have gone all the way. Gabriel took it from the Patriot 44 all the way to the Jet 19 before suddenly letting the wet and slippery ball fall out of his hands before being shoved out of bounds. Kerry Rhodes picked up the fumble, and Chad Pennington proceeded to lead the Jets on a 16-play, 76-yard drive which ate up nine minutes and 12 seconds and made it 7-3 Jets. The Patriots never really recovered from this turn of events.

This underscores two things. First, Brady still has no ?go-to guy? to throw to, despite Reche Caldwell making nine catches for 90 yards, and Gabriel really has yet to develop into the game-breaking replacement for Branch that everyone thought he would be. Second, it could be said that Branch simply doesn?t fumble the ball. In rainy conditions like Sunday, anything can happen, but Gabriel simply let the ball fall out of his hands, he wasn?t hit by any Jet. It was an un-Patriot-like play in this current run of Patriotic excellence, and Belichick has to be privately wondering if he perhaps blew it by letting Branch walk.

As for Law, there was a telling play in the fourth quarter. Twenty-two yards from the end zone, Pennington lofted a rainbow toss towards the right corner of the end zone. Ellis Hobbs had perfect coverage on Jerricho Cotchery, and had position to make an easy interception. But Cotchery outleaped Hobbs and instead hauled in a touchdown pass to make it 17-6 Jets with 4:45 left in the game. It further underscored the fact that the Patriots do not have a shutdown corner, and despite Law not being what he once was, the Patriots might be a little tougher to throw on if Law were there protecting half of the field. Hobbs and Asante Samuel don?t pass as shutdown corners at this time.

Has the league finally caught up to Bill Belichick?

Now you all know why Belichick has such an ice-cold attitude towards Mangini. Maybe Belichick saw this coming. Mangini had his team much better prepared to play this game, and Belichick had no answers for what the Jets threw at the Patriots, especially with the Jet defense against the Patriot offense. You could say that the Patriots were too depleted to deal with the Jet blitz packages, but these are usually adjustments the Patriots are able to make.

Another area which merits concern is the play calling. On their final drive of the first quarter, Corey Dillon bludgeoned the Jets with a 50-yard scamper off right tackle, and two runs by Maroney put the Patriots at the Jet 12. An offside penalty put the Patriots at the three, second and one. Instead of continuing to run up the gut, where the Jets can best be attacked, Josh McDaniels called for an end run to Maroney which was blown up by Jonathan Vilma and Dewayne Robertson for a two-yard loss. The Patriots had to settle for a 32-yard field goal by Stephen Gostkowski. The Patriots would not find the end zone until late in the fourth quarter when the Jets played a soft prevent defense.

Are Dillon and Maroney overrated?

This may be a reach, and it may actually be a problem of play calling rather than talent. Take away Dillon?s 50-yard run (on which he showed his age by looking like a lumbering lineman and was run down easily by the Jet secondary) and he had 48 yards on 10 carries, which was a still-good 4.8 average. Meanwhile, the much-ballyhooed Maroney had only 37 yards on 12 carries. Dillon still looks like the stronger runner between the two, and Maroney has not really hit his stride like he seemed to do earlier in the season. For all the anticipation which the two have generated, they have not been the second coming of the Cunningham-Johnson-Calhoun trio which in 1976-78 formed the best running unit in the league.

The Patriots still have seven games left to clean up whatever mess they have made with these two losses. But they face two tough interconference tests, next week at Green Bay and at home against Chicago. Based upon what Pennington was able to do to the Patriots on Sunday, old nemesis Brett Favre ought to be looking forward to riddling the Harrison-less Patriot secondary next week at Lambeau Field.

Maybe the dynasty isn?t over yet. But the patient is in intensive care for the moment.