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So long, mystique

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It's 11 years ago. A young Tom Brady is in his first few games leading the New England Patriots as their starting quarterback. The games are constantly close, the offense is just good enough to get by, but the defense is the real strength of the team. They lead the squad all the way through to a victory over the St. Louis 'Best Show on Turf' Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI.

For the next few years this would be a continuing trend. The offense slowly got better and the defense slightly regressed, but still good enough to win games. To win BIG games. Two more Super Bowls. Then something happened. When the going got tough, the Pats got going back to the team bus, because they just lost a close game. Acting like 12-year-olds watching 'The Exorcist' for the first time and needing a change of shorts when it was all said and done.

So, why did this once dominant bunch become beatable all of a sudden? As the taunting of Tom Brady after the loss to the Seahawks shows you, the Patriot Mystique is gone. Why? Well

Bill Belichick made his name as defensive genius, dumfounding teams with his different schemes. But the corner stone was the 3-4. Main job: stop the run with large bodies. Big fat guys up front who controlled the line of scrimmage and massive linebackers whose job was to smash people. The Pats would draft players that fit into this system, and it worked to perfection for years. Here's the catch: Around the time the Oakland Raiders started dinking and dunking around the field with Rich Gannon, throwing the ball 40 times a game, it started to catch on. Things went away from the run to the pass, and those big fatties who were supposed to smash people were now sucking wind as they watched wide receivers they were trying to cover run past them. New England has started to catch on in recent years, drafting players like Chandler Jones and Dont'a Hightower to fit this new mold.

Next Problem: defensive backs. Life is a whole lot easier when you have a corner back who can shut down an opponent's best receiver in single coverage - like Ty Law and Asante Samuel in those afore-mentioned glory days. But as Rick Pitino may have said, 'Ty Law and Asante Samuel aren't walking through that door.' Devin McCourty and Kyle Arrington are. They seem better suited for lives on the Matador circuit - watching speeding bulls run directly past them. Lawyer Milloy and Rodney Harrison were the anchors back there at safety; the search for their replacements has come up empty thus far as well. Brandon Meriweather couldn't figure out the street signs to get to Gillette Stadium let alone the defensive playbook. Patrick Chung is still on the team but hasn't lived up to the billing at this point. Belichick and company have tried to fill the defensive backfield with talented players through the draft, but have continually misfired year after year. It all leads to what we currently see on the field on Sundays.

In what has become a quarterback's league, it's only fair to talk about our own. Tom Brady. Is it fair to blame Gisele Bundchen for the fall of an empire? No, probably not. But the facts are the facts. The Pats didn't lose big games, let alone Super Bowls until she arrived on scene. I don't think she wants New England to lose, but maybe life is too good for Tom Brady at home. Would you want to pore over hours and hours of film if you knew she was at home waiting for you?

I'm sure Tom's heart is still in it, and occasionally we still see that fire. We just need to see it more. In each close game this season there has been a time in the fourth quarter where the Pats have had the ball with the lead and an opportunity with a sustained drive to win the game. First downs are all that are required. They don't get them. They try to go deep to Brandon Lloyd for a knockout punch, when a Wes Welker drag over the middle would perfectly suffice.

The Patriots are far from done as a team. They just need to put these games away and somehow figure out how to stop a pass from being completed. Perfect time for the bye week.

Consider this: After losing in weeks eight and nine last season, the Patriots turned a corner and didn't lose again until the Super Bowl. Maybe this will be the case again this year.

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