Now we know why Bill Belichick went for it on fourth-and-2, deep in his territory, against Indy last month. He knows what he's working with in New England, and now after having the Saints expose the flaws not even the most brilliant scheming can hide, so does everyone else.
"We have to do a lot better to compete with a team of this caliber," Belichick said after New Orleans defeated New England 38-17 Monday night, scoring more points on the Patriots than any team has since Miami unveiled the Wildcat on them (38 points) in September 2008.
As much as we learned that New Orleans (11-0) is the best team in the NFL at the moment, that quarterback Drew Brees is beyond special and that the Superdome can be as intimidating a venue as there is, we also learned that these Patriots are starting to look a lot like Mike Tyson, post-Buster Douglas.
New England still has enough knockout potential to frighten and maybe even contend. But the soft spots are starting to surface with more regularity, leaving the Patriots defenseless to opponents who have the character, confidence and talent to dish out more than they can handle.
Just two weeks after the Colts dropped 35 points on the Pats in the game remembered more for Belichick's fourth-down gamble than Peyton Manning's winning touchdown pass, New Orleans upped the ante. There is a reason why the Colts and Saints are undefeated and why New England isn't -- they're better. But aren't the Patriots the team that fixes things and makes them better?
Maybe against the Jets. But what about in the weight class they used to reign?
The Colts nit-picked the Patriots' secondary in their one-point victory in Week 10. The Saints simply picked it apart in their 21-point bludgeoning on Monday. Brees registered a perfect passer rating of 158.3 and threw each of his touchdowns to five different receivers. He was also 10-for-10 for 295 yards and three touchdowns on first down.
New Orleans had two touchdown drives that took a total of four combined plays. The Saints had scoring possessions of seven, five and nine plays. They had eight plays of 20 yards or more, three of which went for touchdowns. They gave it to New England however they pleased.
The Saints created matchup problems on post routes in the deep middle of the field with Devery Henderson, Marques Colston and Robert Meacham going for walks in the park time after time, with barely an escort from anyone wearing a white jersey. Henderson said film study uncovered weaknesses with New England's safeties.
So did real-time execution.
Patriots safety Brandon Meriweather was being touted for a Pro Bowl spot before this game, but Ed Reed and Troy Polamalu needn't feel threatened -- not yet anyway. Maybe it was just a bad game for Meriweather and the rest of the defense; bad games happen once in awhile.
This might not be the last time New England gets hit hard, though.
A victory at Miami on Sunday is hardly automatic, especially since the Dolphins' faint playoff hopes have left them far more desperate than New England, which holds a two-game lead over both Miami and the Jets. Not to mention, the Patriots are vulnerable, especially to a Dolphins team that gives them a test each time they meet.
The shortcomings of a Patriots defense that is still one of the better units in the NFL shouldn't be without surprise, because what New England puts on the field each Sunday is done with premeditation. The defenders that once made the unit reliable or could add some experience were either traded (Mike Vrabel, Richard Seymour), are in the broadcast booth (Rodney Harrison, Tedy Bruschi) or healthy and in street clothes (Junior Seau, Shawn Springs).
The guys in their place haven't consistently lived up to that gold standard.
"We averaged 10 yards per offensive play (9.6 overall, 15.3 passing)," Brees said after the game, "which was pretty ridiculous."
Ridiculous is right. That's not all on the Patriots defense, however.
New Orleans boasts an offense that can make any team look abysmal. The Patriots were made victims to a big-play onslaught that was preventable to some degree, but not fully. The Saints are the NFL's No. 1 offense because they are too sound, have too many weapons, too good a quarterback and a dynamic play-caller in coach Sean Payton.
Typically, we'd expect the Patriots to come back with a fury and roll Miami on Sunday, like they did the Jets last week after the staggering loss to Indy. That routine could be getting a little trying, though.
"They are a very, very good football team," defensive tackle Vince Wilfork said of New Orleans. "If we continue to play like that, we will have this losing feeling a lot more. All we can do is regroup."
It's a sentiment Belichick shared with reporters on Tuesday after sleeping on the loss and watching tape in the morning.
"Iâd like to think that most all of it is correctable,â Belichick said of his team's defensive failures against New Orleans. "The majority of the yardage that we gave up was on a handful of plays ... Iâm not saying all the rest of them were great, but anytime you give up that much yardage on a handful of plays, itâs bad. But if you can find a way to correct those big plays and not give it all up at once, youâll be a lot more competitive out there.
"Overall, when you look at a 10- or 11-game evaluation, there's a lot of positives there (on defense). A lot of the problems we had last night weren't problems that occured in previous games or were very infrequent. The big plays last night were a huge problem.
"Look, after a game like last night, are there problems? It sure looked like it last night. But over the course of the year I wouldn't say that it's a continual problem. I think everyone that played and coached has some accountability for it, and I'll certainly accept mine. That wasn't good enough on my part."
A loss to the Dolphins could definitely weaken New England, but after Miami on Sunday, Carolina, Buffalo, Jacksonville and Houston remain on the schedule. If the Patriots don't handle that slate, then any questions about who they are vs. who they were will have been answered by their absence from the postseason. It's hard to see that happening, though.
What is pretty clear is that the Patriots could have to hit the road early in the playoffs, and all four of their losses this season have been away from Gillette Stadium (their lone road win was against Tampa Bay in London). Just that thought paints a picture of where New England falls in the AFC, let alone NFL pecking order.
Who are you taking?