The Patriots' defense is terrible, and it's the sole reason they are 2-2 and tied with the Jets in the AFC East with two home losses after Sunday's shocking 33-30 loss to Carolina. Tom Brady might be the only reason the reigning Super Bowl champions aren't winless.
Because the NFL is all about complementary football, one major weakness at some point will take its toll on an unquestioned strength.
With so much talk about "Can you believe how well Brady is still playing at 40?", it's time to remember that, well, he's still 40. No QB, even the G.O.A.T., can be expected to lead big comeback after big comeback.
GAME CENTER: Complete Panthers-Patriots stats
It worked last week against the Texans, but with a performance not quite as interstellar (32 of 45, 307 yards, two TDs, three sacks, 104.6 passer rating) Sunday, Brady ran out of time against the Panthers.
Brady is on pace for 620 attempts, mirroring his totals in 2013 and '15 — when New England didn't win it all. With his offensive line struggling in pass protection, he is also on pace to take a career-high 52 sacks.
The difference in why Houston lost and Carolina pulled the upset against New England? Brady wasn't in position to hit backbreaking big plays deep to wide receiver Brandin Cooks on Sunday. Other than one typical downfield rumble by tight end Rob Gronkowski, Brady was doing a whole lot of dinking and dunking in the interest of fast and furious survival.
So what's wrong with that Patriots defense? It has pretty good talent in many spots. Mostly, it's a confused group that has been plagued by a glaring lack of communication. Backs, receivers and tight ends are running free all over the field. There's no way pedestrian wideouts such as Kelvin Benjamin and Devin Funchess should be getting open with such ease for big gains.
Carolina QB Cam Newton came in beaten up and shaky, and he used New England to get well despite throwing an interception. The Patriots had enough problems stopping the traditional running game; they couldn't handle Newton (eight carries, 44 yards, one rushing TD) taking off, too.
Which brings this back to Brady. He's the guy you want to have in shootouts, but getting into them every week isn't a long-term winning proposition. The Patriots pride themselves on being versatile, but the defense's issues are pushing the offense to be more predictable with game flow out of their control. They can't establish any kind of power running game to protect their D, early or late. They're not in position to finish games in the second half by wearing down better opponents with pure play volume.
Instead, Brady is feeling the wear. The pressure is on him to be practically perfect, and with every extra dropback comes a chance for another hit.
Don't forget that Brady was able to have a monster 2016 season and look his best for the epic Super Bowl LI comeback against Atlanta because he got some late-career, early-season refreshment thanks to his four-game Deflategate suspension. That left him rejuvenated after a terrific 2015, considering the Patriots always play deep into the postseason.
It was awesome to watch Brady erase a 25-point deficit against Atlanta, but the Patriots' version of the Super Bowl hangover is that they haven't solved all the problems that allowed the Falcons to build a 28-3 lead in the first place. In a copycat league, playoff contenders such as Chiefs, Texans and Panthers have learned that the way to beat the Patriots is to outscore them by being as versatile and multiple as New England would like to be.
Malcolm Butler and Stephon Gilmore haven't been close to the dominant cornerback duo they were expected to be. Veteran safeties Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung have looked lost in key situations. In other words, the Patriots are being abused on the back end the way Brady rips apart other teams' secondaries.
Brady's mental and physical fortitude can't be taken for granted. He can only prop up such a one-sided team so much. At some point frustration will set in, and such emotions can even get to a competitor of his unprecedented level.
The Patriots can fix their defense, but it won't be easy given the fundamental nature of the problems. At the very least, they need to make things a little less hard on Brady.