by Scott Benson

Just eight days ago, the New England Patriots were 6-1 and on the precipice of taking control of the AFC at the halfway point of the 2006 season.

That brief moment may indeed prove to have been their zenith for this year.

The Pats yesterday lost two in a row for the first time in four years by dropping a 17-14 decision to the New York Jets for their sixth home loss in the last thirteen games played at Gillette Stadium.

New England is now 6-3 and in a free fall through the ranks of the AFC.

It’s often said that NFL games played in the months of November and December inevitably separate the playoff men from the regular season boys. If that’s the case, Bill Belichick’s Patriots are in deep shit this morning.

At the point in the season where they are supposed to be showing off their rock hard playoff abs, the Patriots are instead concealing (not too well) the paunch of a soft white, not-ready-for-prime-time underbelly. Time is wasting, and so too are the Patriots. November 1st has arrived, and with it has come New England’s worst two performances of the season.

Even the AFC East division title, which had been considered a fait accompli for the Pats since September, is back on the table. The Jets are now just one game back in the loss column with seven games to play.

The Pats offense is an abject mess. Opposing blitzers run free with no recriminations for direct shots at a badly slumping Tom Brady, who is all of a sudden making Michael Vick look like an accurate passer. Momentum-crushing turnovers, which used to be uncharacteristic in these parts, are now eminently charcteristic, thanks to Favre-like gambles by Brady and a gaggle of players that can’t hang on to the ball. And once again, as they did last year, the Pats are frittering away any hope of establishing offensive balance – and control – by ignoring their running backs in favor of a scattershot pass-happy attack.

Yesterday, despite trailing by no more than 4 points for most of the game, the Patriots ran 41 pass plays to only 25 rushes. New England used its first round choice in last April’s draft on perhaps the best collegiate running back available. They allowed their two starting receivers to leave over disagreements on ‘value’. Yet the Patriots coaching staff continues to air it out while displaying an ADHD-like commitment to its running game. None of it makes any goddam sense at all.

The defense once again held an opponent to 17 points or under, but twice yesterday they allowed time-consuming scoring drives (one clocking in at sixteen plays and NINE minutes) when a stop could have meant everything. They allowed Kevan Barlow to consistently put New York in second and shorts, and made it way too easy on Chad Pennington when he had to throw.

The Patriots have a capable defense, but the ravages of injury (yesterday they played without their starting safeties and defensive end Ty Warren, and with a severely diminished Richard Seymour) and self-inflicted pressure by its own poorly conceived and executed offense took their toll. They are not good enough to cover for their own errors and those made around them. Their forced another turnover yesterday, a well-played interception by a center-fielding Artrell Hawkins, only to see the Jets offense get the ball right back on a sloppy fumble by Doug Gabriel. Naturally, exactly then is when the Jets nine-minute drive ensued.

Funny how that seems to happen, especially to bad football teams. But by all means, Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels, keep airing it out. Keep putting it all on the shoulders of your most-badly slumping player. Keep ‘saving’ Corey Dillon (11 carries) and Laurence Maroney (12) for games that, at this rate, will never be played.

This morning, the Patriots return to Gillette – where they once won 21 straight, a LONG time ago – to lick their wounds, prepare for a road trip to Green Bay, and figure out how they got so irrelevant in eight lousy days.