FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Tom Brady(notes), ever calm, ever the placid face of California serenity regardless of any storm swirling around the New England Patriots, looked stricken Wednesday afternoon. For there came a word in which he is unaccustomed to hearing in his decade of leading the NFL's most resilient team: finesse.
As in, are the Patriots now a team no longer built on power?
And the quarterback who never fumbles a word started to stumble, turning defensive.
"I think you can definitely be a power team while throwing the ball," Brady said in explanation three days after the Patriots' lack of a running game exposed them against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Then he went on an explanation of all the running plays the Patriots employed to close out their victory of the Jets a few weeks ago.
But the difficulty of the explanation is really the question: Have the Patriots lost the physical dominance that once drove them to Super Bowl after Super Bowl? Have they, in this pass-first NFL, gotten so far away from the core of what they once were that simply being the Patriots isn't good enough anymore?
Brady practically spit as he said the word "finesse."
"The Steelers threw it 50 times last week but they're a physical team," Brady said.
Yet something has happened to the New England of old. The identity has slowly been changing from a methodical giant grinding down the field on offense and crushing opponents on defense to one that relies more and more on the pass. It is a change that has, of course, been noted. But in other seasons the Patriots were still so efficient with their passing game and able to generate enough turnovers that the discussion was quickly buried.
This year it has not. Oakland Raiders linebacker Rolando McClain(notes) used the "finesse" tag prior to the teams' Week 4 meeting. The result was 183 yards rushing from the Patriots in a 31-19 victory. But there were also the four interceptions by the Buffalo Bills the previous week in their huge comeback win over the Patriots and Sunday's defeat at Pittsburgh which raised eyebrows given that New England has always handled the Steelers well in the past.
There is suddenly a fear around Boston that those great defensive stands are no longer there when the Patriots need them. Not only are Buffalo and Pittsburgh teams that New England has dominated in recent seasons, they are two of the four best teams in the AFC right now and if the Patriots can't beat the best teams in their conference, this could be another short January.
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This Sunday will bring an ideal test of New England's toughness. The Giants, who bruised New England and targeted Brady in their Super Bowl XLII upset, play the Patriots for the first time since that classic encounter. And while most of the players on both teams have changed, the mentality of the Giants has not: New York likes to beat people up and drag teams into drawn-out physical contests – once the kind of afternoon on which the Patriots thrived.
It's hard to say where New England is right now. The Patriots in Bill Belichick's era have always been tough to predict. The Buffalo and Pittsburgh losses could wind up being mere blips during another dominating season, just more of the overreaction that often comes in the days after NFL games. Brady smilingly described the weeks after a New England loss as "a mourning period," in which everyone "is pretty much in a bad mood."
"It sucks," he added. "The whole week sucks actually."
Belichick is legendary for tearing up things that don't work, even in midseason, and designing something entirely new, then installing it in two or three days. No coach is more imaginative, his players have always said. And nobody is better at explaining it, they agree, allowing them to instantly grasp the new concepts.
Still, the fact that the question arises of how the Patriots will respond to the Pittsburgh loss shows how much things have changed. Once it was assumed New England would hit teams with a fury; now there are suggestions the Patriots have become too much of a club looking to pass without also looking to defend.
"If you are a finesse team you won't last very long," Brady said. "We're trying to be a physical team."
What they have to wonder is if the team giving up 424 yards and almost 23 points a game can turn vicious now that the weather has turned cold. Never until now has anyone dared to ask "finesse" when talking about the Patriots. Now the word keeps coming up.
"Will it stick?"
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