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What to watch for in Patriots vs. Buccaneers on 'TNF'

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New England's less-than-pristine start to the season is a reminder that every NFL campaign takes on a life of its own.

The Patriots, for eons, have operated as pro football's most dependable juggernaut. Faced with the occasional sluggish start, Bill Belichick's charges could always be counted on to round into shape before systematically scattering opponents down the stretch en route to an AFC title game appearance and beyond.

Maybe this year's troubles are an equal mirage, but evidence points to a different type of season in New England, a journey less certain to lead to another jeweled crown.

This week's tilt with the Buccaneers will bring fresh answers about our defending champions. Here's what we'll be watching for when the Patriots visit Tampa Bay on Thursday Night Football, which airs live on CBS, NFL Network and Amazon Prime Video at 8 p.m. ET:

1. New England's stunning issues on defense cannot be shrugged off by the football cognoscenti. The Patriots have allowed 128 points this year, the most in franchise history over the first four games of a season. NFL Research notes that only one defending Super Bowl champion has been blistered for more points over their first four tilts: the 1987 Giants, who played their third and fourth games that autumn with strike-induced replacement players. That's not news to Belichick, who served as Big Blue's defensive coordinator that season under an annoyed Bill Parcells.

2. On pace for the worst total defense since the 1970 merger, the Patriots have surrendered 400-plus yards in each game this season and currently rank 31st in points allowed per tilt. Why? It starts with a secondary that has utterly failed to live up to its summertime hype. Free-agent acquisition Stephon Gilmore was torched by the Panthers last week, allowing 71 yards and a touchdown off two Carolina catches. After signing a five-year, $65 million deal, the former Bills cover man has struggled to pick up Belichick's scheme, acknowledging after Sunday's loss: "It's frustrating when it's communication, it's not really ability. I have to get better at the communication part. It's my fault on the communication."

What's concerning is that Gilmore -- who appeared to be benched for a spell against Carolina -- is "communicating" with the likes of Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung and Malcolm Butler, on paper one of the best secondaries league-wide, but in real life a disjointed mess through the first month of play.

"Just being here, especially on defense; in my five years here, we've prided ourselves on being a smart and tough football team, especially defensively," safety Duron Harmon said, per Boston.com. "We're just not doing it."

3. All things considered, Thursday night's matchup is a plus for quarterback Jameis Winston and his flurry of talented Bucs pass-catchers. That said, the addition of DeSean Jackson hasn't exactly played out as expected, with Winston a mere 3-for-11 passing when targeting the burner 15-plus yards downfield. With just nine catches for 143 yards and one score over three games, Jackson was visibly frustrated during Sunday's win over the Giants, saying this week: "Everybody planned it to be the perfect situation and we were asked to be that, but [Winston's] never really played with a guy like me. I'm just going to keep on doing everything I can to help him."

4. If Winston and DeSean have a ways to go, the Bucs quarterback has shown juicy chemistry with Mike Evans, who had his way with Giants cornerback Eli Apple last week and leads the team in targets (32), receptions (19), yards (227) and yards per game (75.7). Tampa's also made the most of their tight ends, unleashing Cameron Brate (4/80/1) and rookie O.J. Howard (2/63/1) against New York in Week 4. The most underrated asset in this attack is wideout Adam Humphries, who produces every week and worked over the Giants for 70 yards off six catches. After watching Carolina's Devin Funchess (7/70/2) enjoy a career afternoon against the Patriots while goading Gilmore into an illegal use of hands penalty, Tampa's flock of weapons have to love their opportunity come Thursday night.

5. Back from suspension, Doug Martin is a bona fide X-factor in this matchup. I'm not sure any running back league-wide looked better than Martin in the preseason. If that sticks, he comprehensively changes what the Bucs can accomplish on offense, giving Tampa enviable balance and upping Winston's ability for success on play-action snaps. It's crazy to think that Martin spent the past three weeks watching his team play from a rash of SoCal sports bars, but his exodus is over. New England will do their best to stop him with a front seven that hasn't been the same with key linebacker Dont'a Hightower still rounding into form after missing two games with an MCL sprain. The Patriots have seen solid play from a pair of edge defenders, Deatrich Wise and Trey Flowers, but last year's decision to trade away Chandler Jones looks suspect today.

6. We've gotten this far without mentioning Tom Brady, who can tie Brett Favre and Peyton Manning for most wins by a starting quarterback in NFL history with a victory against the Bucs. With 10 touchdowns and zero picks on the season, Brady is arguably playing his best football at age 40. Still, this feels like an offense -- and a team -- leaning too hard on their star signal-caller. It's worked so far, though, with New England leading the NFL in yards per game while trailing only the Rams in points per tilt. Brady easily tops all quarterbacks with 328.3 passing yards per outing, numbers helped by the outstanding play of his pass-catchers, led by tight end Rob Gronkowski and wideouts Chris Hogan, Danny Amendola and Brandin Cooks. New England's Week 2 win over the Saints also served as a visual wonderland for fans who love versatility on offense, with running backs James White and Rex Burkhead torching New Orleans through the air. White was back at it against the Panthers, but Burkhead has missed the last two games with a rib injury and has been ruled out for Week 5. With Mike Gillislee and Dion Lewis also helping on the ground, there's no end to how the Patriots can attack the enemy.

7. Tampa's defense will try to contain this circus minus a handful of key players on defense. While ageless cover man Brent Grimes returned in Week 4, linebackers Lavonte David (knee) and Kwon Alexander (hamstring) won't suit up. Look for second-year linebacker Devante Bond to face a tough test, while Tampa's defensive front, led by All-Pro tackle Gerald McCoy, will try to feast on a New England line that has allowed 13 sacks on the year. Brady has taken far too many shots this season, and it's fair to wonder how long that can last.

8. Patriots fans worth their salt can look at this season's early troubles with a dash of hope. After all, New England has started out 2-2 in five previous campaigns under Belichick. Three of those seasons -- 2003, 2005 and 2014 -- ended with Super Bowl wins, while the other two still generated playoff berths. The Patriots also opened 1-3 in 2001, only to stun the Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI. From another angle, none of that previous mythology has any impact on this year's roster.

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