FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Through six games of 2017, the Patriots (4-2) clearly aren't the same team that took home New England's fifth Lombardi Trophy with the epic comeback win over the Atlanta Falcons in February.
After breaking down film of Sunday's 24-17 win over the AFC East rival New York Jets, ever-astute Patriots head coach Bill Belichick emphasized that believing the team could pick up where it left off last season isn't realistic.
"It's incomprehensible to me how anybody could think that a team that's practiced for six months and played 19 regular-season and post-season games and had triple-digit practices, five months later, after not playing a game, after having a fraction of that type of experience, could be anywhere close to the level of execution that they were five months before that after all of the things that I just listed. I mean, it's impossible in my view," Belichick said Monday, all in one breath.
Belichick was reacting to the residue of preseason expectations that included a belief that the Patriots could go undefeated, apparently based on offseason acquisitions and some presumption that some momentum existed from last season. He once again squashed that idea with a simple observation.
"So, each year, you start all over again," he reminded. "You start that process all over again. You build your team over the course of the year though practice repetitions, through preseason to regular-season games, through the evolving of your scheme, and that's why each year is different and unique. But, I understand I'm in the minority and most other people don't see it that way, which is OK, but that's the way I see it."
That's why he is the great coach. Regardless of rampant expectations, Belichick realizes each season is different, which actually became obvious when the Patriots were beat up in the season opener by the Kansas City Chiefs and were 2-2 before winning the last two games.
But, they still are not where they want to be, a point that quarterback Tom Brady made clear after overcoming a clear and present danger of losing in the closing moments.
"I wish we had done better, but we won," Brady said just after escaping MetLife Stadium. "Probably a lot to learn from it. We'll keep at it. It's only the sixth game of the year. Still a lot to figure out."
Sunday's win elevated New England to first place in the AFC and just a game back of the best record in the NFL, but the Patriots are hardly happy about how they are playing.
The defense is dead last in the NFL. It allowed Jets quarterback Josh McCown to throw for 354 yards, becoming the sixth consecutive opponent this season to pass for more than 300 yards.
That generosity is the result of a team effort. Not only is the coverage inconsistent, at best, the pass rush is weak and the run defense is mediocre most of the time.
Also, the offense was held under 30 points each of the last two weeks and barely managed to get 24 and 19 points in wins over the Jets and Bucs, respectively.
Brady obviously buys into Belichick's reality check.
"The goal is not to be perfect," Brady told WEEI. "The goal is just to be better than the other team. You'd love for everything to go right, but you have to coordinate 11 guys doing the right thing on every play, and then to marry that with the defense, they play good defense, too. That's the ebbs and flows of the game. So that was just one of those days (Sunday) where we couldn't really get into the right flow. We just kind of kept fighting, kept fighting. We just had to grind it out."
Defensive captain Duran Harmon also tried to put the season in proper perspective, but with a positive spin.
"We didn't start the way we wanted to this year," the safety said. "But I really believe we are making good progress."
And, despite lofty preseason expectations, that is the best that can be said about the 2017 Patriots.
Quarterback Tom Brady set an NFL record with his 187th career regular-season win in Sunday's ugly 24-17 victory in New York. Until then, Brady was tied with Peyton Manning and Brett Favre. Brady already held the records for most overall wins by a quarterback (212) and most regular-season wins by a quarterback for one team (187).
"That's what we're all here for: to win games," Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said of his quarterback's latest record. "We're very fortunate to have Tom at the helm of those wins."
Cornerback Stephon Gilmore was limited in practice last week with an ankle injury before he was removed from the report after participating fully in practice last Friday. But on Saturday, Gilmore returned to the injury report with a concussion and was downgraded to out for Sunday's game and did not make the trip to New York.
Belichick was less than forthcoming -- per usual -- when asked about the odd sequence with Gilmore.
Said Belichick: "We followed the rules to the letter on the injuries like we always do. They were reported exactly as it happened."
Midway through the fourth quarter of Sunday's game, it appeared that Jets tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins scored on a 4-yard reception to pull New York within 3 at 24-21. But upon further review, the play was ruled a fumble by Seferian-Jenkins that he did not recover before going out the side of the end zone, meaning it was a turnover and touchback for the Patriots.
It was a controversial call to say the least, but one that Patriots players clearly enjoyed.
"Oh man, great call by the referees," safety Duron Harmon said of what was ruled a fumble forced by cornerback Malcolm Butler. "Great call. It's football. I mean, that rule, a lot of people don't like it. I love it because, as a defensive player, it gives us the opportunity to make a big play, a momentum play, to give our offense the ball without (the opponent) even scoring three points."
After the game referee Tony Corrente said it was a "pretty obvious call."
"When Malcolm came off the field, first thing he told me was that it was out," head coach Bill Belichick said. "I thought they were reviewing whether he was across the goal line or not. But you know Malcolm had a really good look at it. That was the first thing he told me."
NOTES: LB Harvey Langi was inactive for the fourth straight week and fifth time this season. His absence was due to a serious multi-car accident the undrafted rookie and his wife were in on Friday night in Foxborough. Though the Jaws of Life were used on his car, Langi was reportedly released from the hospital on Saturday. ... CB Stephon Gilmore (concussion) was added to the Patriots injury report on Saturday and ruled out for the game against the Jets. Gilmore's concussion did not appear on the injury report previously, though the cornerback was dealing with an ankle injury that limited him on Wednesday and Thursday last week. He was listed as full participation and removed from the injury report altogether on Friday. ... CB Eric Rowe (groin) missed his second straight game and third contest in a month. Rowe is still walking with a noticeable limp in the New England locker room. ... RB Rex Burkhead (ribs) was inactive for the fourth straight game due to the injury suffered in Week 2 in New Orleans. Burkhead has practiced on a limited basis, began the week as questionable, then was downgraded to out. ... LB David Harris was a healthy scratch for the second time in three weeks, missing the battle with his former Jets team. ... T Cameron Fleming was a healthy scratch in New York, the first time he was inactive since opening night against the Chiefs. ... T LaAdrian Waddle was active for just the third time this season, seeing reserve action on the offensive line and in the kicking game. ... T Cole Croston was inactive, a healthy scratch for the sixth straight game to open his NFL career. ... WR Chris Hogan was helped off the field by trainers in the second half of Sunday's win after taking a big hit to the ribs following an incomplete pass. Hogan returned to the game later appeared to be in some discomfort following the hit.
REPORT CARD VS. JETS
--PASSING OFFENSE: B minus - Tom Brady was not sacked, which is notable after enduring sacks at least twice in each of the first five games. Brady threw for the fewest yards of the season, completing 20 of 38 for just 257 yards with a pair of touchdowns and one interception (80.7 rating). The pick was the second in as many weeks and came on an ill-advised deep ball for Phillip Dorsett.
--RUSHING OFFENSE: B-minus - Were it not for Mike Gillislee's fumble in New York territory in the first quarter, this grade would have been even better. Overall the Patriots ran it 24 times for 119 yards for a 5-yard average. Dion Lewis led the way with 11 carries for 52 yards and his second rushing score of the season. But Gillislee's fumble put a damper on the production against the Jets 30th-ranked run defense.
--PASS DEFENSE: D - Thanks to a couple interceptions, New England held Josh McCown to an 84.9 rating, the lowest by a Patriots opponent this season. The Patriots played without two of their top three cornerbacks in Stephon Gilmore (concussion) and Eric Rowe (groin). McCown had a season-best 354 yards passing, completing 31 of his 47 throws with two touchdowns and the two picks.
--RUSH DEFENSE: B - If the work of the offensive line in pass protection and opening up holes for the ground game was the biggest positive for the Patriots offense, then the defensive front's work stopping the run was the high for the defense. Alan Branch returned to action to set a positive tone for what has been a struggling front. Branch had early penetration on both running and passing situations and the rest of the front followed suit as the Patriots held the Jets to just 74 yards and 24 rushing attempts for a 3.1 average that was by far the lowest for a New England opponent this season.
--SPECIAL TEAMS: C - Stephen Gostkowski missed a field goal for the first time this season, a 47-yard attempt in the second quarter. The kicker hit a 28-yarder later and continued to be solid on kickoffs. Punter Ryan Allen was so-so with a 40-yard average and 40.5-yard net on his four chances, with one inside the 20. The net was higher than the gross because the Jets had minus-2 yards in punt returns.
--COACHING: C - There is little doubt the Patriots are underperforming right now. Clearly some of the blame for that falls on the coaching staff. Bill Belichick is supposed to get the most out of his players, putting them in position to maximize their strengths and mask their weaknesses. That is not happening. Offensively, the unit was too focused on deep balls. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels apparently moved away from the short precision passing attack, New England's strength for more than a decade. Defensively, the Patriots can't stop the pass. Sunday, they threw more blitzes at McCown, with mixed results.