Time to give the Magic Patriots 8-ball a good shake ...
"Ask again later."
That's the easy answer for what we've seen so far from the New England Patriots through three games as they fell Sunday night, 26-10, to the Detroit Lions — a team that had been in the running for worst team at the start of the 2018 NFL season.
Tom Brady has looked human. Rob Gronkowski can't do it all. The run game has been poor. The defense? Not looking too different from the unit that was on the losing end of the Super Bowl.
Yet you can't tell the story of this program — this redoubtable monster these past 18 years — without knowing that things more often than not get better. They've had these slow starts before, including 2017's 2-2 crawl that saw them get worked over twice at home and have to pull one win out by the skin of their teeth.
And yeah, we spoiled it: They were one drive away from winning the Super Bowl.
But does this one feel different? We're honestly asking. Brady looked frustrated against the Lions, similar to how he did last week in a road thumping by the Jaguars. And yet that game, like this one, was relatively close on the scoreboard. However, did either feel like the Patriots should have won?
The Patriots might always be built to last, and help is on the way. Josh Gordon, who was inactive on Sunday, could be on the field in Week 4 when the Patriots take on the unbeaten Miami Dolphins. A week after that, when the Colts come to Foxborough, Julian Edelman should join him. That's a huge lift for Brady and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels.
Brady finished the game 14-of-26 passing for 133 yards with one TD, a terrible interception and a bad intentional grounding in the second half. It was his lowest passing total since the 2014 season.
They opened with three straight three-and-outs against the Lions. Even against Matt Patricia, who knows the Patriots' trends inside and out, that's putrid. Only one drive against the Lions did the Patriots look to be in any kind of rhythm — the third-quarter march when the Patriots converted their one turnover on defense into a touchdown. Brady hit James White on a gorgeous dart, and everyone at home on their couches said, OK, here it comes ...
Except it never did.
The Patriots' defense reverted back to its old-and-slow form, and Brady couldn't find any connection in the passing game not named Gronk, who was treated to inside-out coverage most of the night. That won't change until Gordon or Edelman or someone else gets open beyond 5 yards downfield.
The Lions set out to bleed the clock early and bash away at a poor front seven, and it worked. They ran the play clock down to one or two ticks left on every early possession, and they converted third downs systematically with ease. The first-quarter time of possession was 12:30 to 2:30 in favor of Detroit. The Lions gained more first downs (14) than the Patriots had yards from scrimmage (13) with less than five minutes left before halftime.
Normally, the sin of all sins is to settle for field goals against New England. Patricia of all people should know this. That's how the Patriots kill people: by preying on their lack of stones. But the Lions took the three twice early — once on 4th-and-inches on the opening series — and didn't really come close to paying for it.
The Lions had gone 70 games without a 100-yard rusher, and the way this Patriots' defense is getting blown off the line and juked in the hole, it's only fitting it happened on this night. Kerryon Johnson rushed 16 times for 101 yards — the first century-mark back for Detroit since Thanksgiving 2013.
Even once Gordon and Edelman jump on board, can the defense do its part by stopping anyone? Remember, this unit faces Patrick Mahomes, Aaron Rodgers and plenty of other talented quarterbacks the remaining 12 games. On Sunday, Matthew Stafford mostly diced them up, save for that one pick. He finished the game 27-of-36 passing for 262 yards with two scores, and that doesn't begin to paint the picture of how easy it was for him early on. The Patriots barely laid a finger on him before the third quarter.
We shall see. Doubting Bill Belichick has been the worst loser's bet for almost two decades. Brady was in MVP form at the end of last season and should be getting real help soon. The Patriots, lest we forget, actually played some darned-respectable defense the middle of last season — an eight-game span in which they did not allow more than 17 points.
But are we going to be waiting in vain this time?
The wise 8-ball rarely lets us down, so "Ask again later" it is. But it wouldn't shock us if it comes up "Outlook not so good" at some point if things don't change fast for this team.