NEW ORLEANS – So ... This is how New England's opponents felt in 2007.
The New Orleans Saints unleashed holy hell on the Patriots Monday night, 38-17, but even the score wasn't indicative of how one-sided the game seemed. Unlike the loss to Indianapolis two weeks ago, this contest rarely felt competitive.
The Saints juggernaut did whatever it wished offensively, putting together short, big-play scoring drives throughout the evening against a Patriots defense that seemed outmatched from the start. New England's offense, meantime, had its moments (another encouraging, 2-TD performance by Laurence Maroney, for example), but overall, it looked disjointed, clumsy. Conversely, the Saints' aggressive, hungry defense made a few key plays at crucial moments.
But here's the sobering truth: even if the Patriots had been clicking on all cylinders, it wouldn't have mattered.
The Saints were just too good, and the Patriots are not anymore.
Not as good as they once were, to be more accurate. Which is to say, they are no longer one of the NFL's elite teams. They have dropped to an above-average, middle-of-the-pack team.
Don't believe it?
AskBill Belichick. Or Tom Brady. Or Jerod Mayo, Vince Wilfork, Randy Moss, or any of the other players on this team.
"I don't think [the Saints] did anything to revolutionize the game," Belichick said in his post-game remarks to the media. "They were better than we were in every phase of the game. They were obviously the better team tonight."
Can't blame the game plan in this one. Or the deafening atmosphere of the Superdome. Or the referees (New England went without an accepted penalty all night). It has become apparent that the Patriots lack the necessary playmakers, particularly on defense, to compete with the NFL's best.
"We obviously didn't play to their level," echoed Brady. "We're just not playing as consistently as we'd like against these good teams. That's what you need to do.
"They're a great team and we didn't play so great. Obviously, there's a big gap between us … It wasn't as competitive as we were all expecting."
In their biggest games this year, the Patriots have been on the road, have had the lead at least once (even against New Orleans), and have lost.
The Patriots' plan Monday night appeared to be to run the ball more often in an effort to keep the ball out of the hands of New Orleans' superb offensive playmakers while running down the clock. For a while, New England was able to do that. But then the Saints began picking apart the Pats' porous secondary, and New England looked powerless to prevent it.
"When it's crunch time, we have to make plays. We didn't do that," said Mayo in the locker room afterward. "The whole year, the defense has been playing pretty good, except for the Colts game and this game.
"When you come down to it, it's not the coaching, the guys that have won championships … it's all about execution and everybody being on the same page. The defense wasn't on the same page. I take that on my shoulders, not having those guys on the same page out there and giving up big plays against a great offense."
"I don't know. We'll watch film and correct everything then," promised safety Brandon Meriweather, when asked about his team's troubles.
"We'll look at film and go from there," added Wilfork, who struggled to pinpoint what else might be ailing this team.
"I don't know … I don't know," he repeated.
"We're all searching for the problems," Brady acknowledged.
"They out-played us," added cornerback Jonathan Wilhite. "I don't think we're out of this thing by a long shot. But good teams have to know how to handle these things, how to come back from a loss like this. That's what we have to do."
Problem is, they might not be that kind of team anymore.