The Buffalo Bills are in first place in the AFC East.

Chew on that for a second: The Buffalo Bills are in first place in the AFC East and the New England Patriots are tied in second with the New York Jets at 2-2.

In most regions of the country, that wouldn’t be a big deal. After all, there are still three months and 12 games to play.

But in New England, where the Patriots’ championship success is now considered a birthright, that’s almost reason to panic.

Wasn’t this team supposed to steamroll everyone? Wasn’t it better than last year’s Super Bowl champs?

Maybe we miscalculated how good the Patriots really are. But really, they haven’t played better than 2-2. And they’re lucky to be that. New England easily could be 1-3 if Tom Brady didn’t lead the team to a last-second win over Houston in Week 3, following Bill O’Brien’s decision to kick a field goal for a five-point lead on fourth-and-short rather than go for a first down that would have clinched it for the Texans.

The Patriots have been here before: four other 2-2 starts in the Bill Belichick-Brady era, twice winning a Super Bowl (2003 and 2014). But this year feels different.

Going into Thursday night’s game at Tampa Bay, the Patriots have a defense that can’t stop anyone, that makes every quarterback look bound for the Hall of Fame, that leaves gaping holes in the line, in the secondary and in the end zone.

Can it get better? Or is this the beginning of the end of the dynasty?

We all know it’s going to come someday. There’s going to be a year without a playoff berth, without a division title. Is this it?


We know that the Patriots of November, December and January are always vastly better than the Patriots of September. And there’s just too much talent for this team to continue to scuffle.

Start with Brady, who at 40 is playing better than ever. Through four games he leads the NFL in passing yards (1,399) and touchdown passes (10, tied with Aaron Rodgers), and is second in quarterback rating (116.6). Yeah, he’s taking too many hits – 13 sacks, 26 more hits – but he’s standing in and completing 66.5 percent of his passes.

Brandin Cooks is getting acclimated to the passing game. Rob Gronkowski is still the best tight end in the NFL. Dont’a Hightower is a game-changer at linebacker/defensive end. Devin McCourty is one of the best safeties in the league.

Belichick and his coaching staff are pretty smart, too. They’ll adjust. Anyone remember the panic following the 41-14 beatdown New England took in Kansas City on Sept. 29, 2014 that left the Patriots with a similar 2-2 record? Seems like ancient history now, considering the Patriots won a Super Bowl that year.

Even now, with a defense allowing yards at a historic clip – according to Mark Daniels of the Providence Journal, only six teams in NFL history have allowed more yards in the first four games of a season than the Patriots (1,827) – this is a dangerous team.

The offense can score in a blink, averaging 32.2 points a game (second in the NFL) and leading the league in yards per game (423.8) and passing yards (328.2). And they’re facing a Tampa Bay defense that gives up a lot of yards (394.3 per game), especially through the air (351.7, next-to-last in the NFL).

“That’s a great team, the defending champs,” said Buccaneers guard Kevin Pamphile. “We want to attack them regardless if they’re giving up points or not. (We) want to prove ourselves. We want to make sure we let them know we’re a competitive team.”

Everyone wants to be the team that knocks the champ to the canvas.

A loss to the Bucs would drop the Patriots to 2-3 for the first time since 2001, when they started 0-2 with Drew Bledsoe at quarterback. He was injured late in the second game, against the Jets, and a kid named Brady took over. A win makes them a more-palatable 3-2, a record they’ve had seven times since 2002.

The Patriots have a lot of work ahead. In the aftermath of Sunday’s 33-30 home loss to Carolina, the defensive backs continually spoke about miscommunication, resulting in wide-open receivers across the field.

While cornerback Stephon Gilmore, signed to a five-year, $65 million contract, is taking the brunt of the criticism, it’s a team breakdown. And the Patriots know that.

“It’s on all of us and we have to hold each other to a higher standard,” Hightower said Monday. “We know where we need to be and what we need to do. But the time is now.”

It’s time for the real Patriots to step up.

Mike Lowe can be contacted at 791-6422 or:

[email protected]

Twitter: MikeLowePPH

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