by Scott Benson, Greg Doyle, Tim Jordan and Bruce Allen

As weeks go, the Patriots have had better.

They started it on Sunday by getting their ass sewed to their face in Miami. Again. On Monday, they heard the Dolphins crow about getting the audio drop on Tom Brady and the Pats offense.

Tuesday, the receiver-less Patriots suddenly and curiously fired receiver Doug Gabriel. Wednesday, a bristling Brady in as much said that a segment of the team doesn’t work hard enough or – even worse – listen enough to its coaches.

Naturally, this cacophony roared over the Patriots usual soundtrack of tearing muscles and cracking bones. Vince Wilfork and Ben Watson joined the chorus.

Even the quarterback’s personal life was making headlines by Friday.

The 4-9 Houston Texans visit Foxboro for the first time on Sunday. It’s unknown what sort of Patriots team will be there to greet them. Maybe the panel knows.

Before we move on to the rest of the season, let’s take a look back for a minute. What did last Sunday’s disappointing shutout loss to the Dolphins say about the 2006 Patriots?

Greg: Well, I think it says a lot about their offense. And that is its just not championship caliber at the present time. Its dangerous to take a game like this and say “what does this tell us about the future…..” Its dangerous to take any single game in the NFL and think you can figure out what’s going to happen down the road. It just doesn’t work like that. Still, if you take last week’s game and add it to everything we’ve seen this year, as well as taking into account the Patriots mounting injuries, and you have to conclude they’re a pretty good team. But yet one of those teams that makes the playoffs but simply can’t advance through them to the Super Bowl. That’s what they appear to be to me now. But, I’ll keep watching because say they play well this week and then go down and handle Jacksonville next week impressively, the Miami game will be forgotten and the story/flavor of the day will be “are the Patriots coming together at the right time…..??” It wouldn’t shock me for that change of events either. So we’ll just have to see.

Tim: It says that they aren’t a good enough to win 13 regular season games. Maybe not good enough to win 12. We’ll see. Judging any football team on one game is always a risk, especially one like this that alters its identity from week to week. I think you compound that risk when you don’t look at other variables. Miami has New England’s number in the southern climes. It’s almost an annual event. Tom Brady’s 3 worst games out of the 100+ he’s played have come against the Fish. In summary I’ll repeat what I told the very hospitable Miami fans at Dolphin Stadium, “I am just glad this is the last time we play the Dolphins this year.”

Bruce: That they’re not much different from other Patriots teams of the last 40 years. They generally stink in Miami. In retrospect, I can’t believe I picked them to win last week. In the context of this year’s club, it says that they still haven’t gotten things figured out. It’s discouraging for sure, as they displayed many of the same flaws and weaknesses that have haunted them in recent weeks, and you’d like to see improvement in that area with the playoffs just over three weeks away.

Scott: It says they’re a lot closer to the 5th and 6th seed than they are the 1st and 2nd seed. It says we can’t take for granted that when nut cutting time comes, they’ll be able to stand shoulder to shoulder with the Chargers, Ravens and Colts. We can’t take for granted that they have this magical reserve to draw on just because it’s December, and well, just because they’re the Patriots. I think it proves those days are over for the time being.

Naturally, with under 100 yards passing, the team’s paltry wide-receiver group met with renewed scrutiny and further lament. Did Sunday’s result prove something about the Patriots handling of their wide receiver position in the off-season?

Tim: Ahhh, the offseason. This is a tough one because it is blatantly apparent to anyone with one eye following this team that Branch was a tremendous asset to them. He was everything the team needed in a WR and that’s what makes the debacle this summer such a shame, but I really don’t put it all on the Patriots for “bungling” the negotiations or on Branch for “being greedy”. Everybody did what they thought was in their best interest at the time. Gabriel was rented for 10 games for a 5th rounder and Chad Jackson has been seen at the Roxy with Tony Simmons and Bethel Johnson splitting an Orange Whip. With all this as evidence after 13 games, it’s pretty apparent that they did a poor job managing their wide receiver personnel this off-season. I don’t feel that way after just this game, but after the past 13 games. A few big catches from the WR’s we do have would go a long way for this team.

Bruce: Well, it gave the nay-sayers the chance to take a victory lap, we know that. We could debate this subject for hours. I think the part that bothers me the most is when people who really don’t know what happened state that the Patriots just “let” Branch and Givens walk. Somehow the blame is always placed squarely at the feet of the Patriots for those losses, as if the club didn’t even try to retain them. In any event, they HAVE been shorthanded in the receiver department and have had to try and work news guys into the system on the fly. In hindsight (20/20 vision there) yeah, they probably should’ve done things a little bit different. But I’m not going to pronounce them morons and idiots for it.

Scott: The grave dancers like to pretend that they were the only ones who thought it might be a good idea to hang on to David Givens and Deion Branch. I don’t recall anybody who thought the Patriots would be a better team by letting them go. I do recall a few people recognizing that you can’t pay every player what they want. I think virtually everything that could have gone wrong for the Pats this off-season went wrong. They thought they could get Ty Law. They thought they could reach an agreement with Branch. When those things didn’t happen, they had to scramble, with predictable lousy results (like the Doug Gabriel embarrasment). So you can kill them for bad assumptions, though those players DID have something to say about that as well. Does the end result mean they have to change their belief-system as far as how they pay their players? The system that produced unprecedented results? I don’t know — has either Branch or Givens proven yet that they’re worth what they got? Will they ever? Isn’t that a question too?

Greg: I think what happened Sunday was far more a function of the offensive line not playing well. The wide receivers did not have a good game Sunday. But they were far from alone. Guys who have been on the team for years didn’t have a good game. And if Deion Branch had been there in uniform with the Patriots Sunday, they still would have been blown out.

Laurence Maroney is hurt and may miss further action, Patrick Pass left quickly for IR, Gabriel is gone and Chad Jackson might as well be. Watson’s down. The Patriots offense is coming off its first shutout in almost four seasons. Time is running out – where do they go from here?

Scott: As Tim likes to say, I’m not qualified to answer this question. But if I had a turn on the XBox controller, I would hunker down. Protect the ball first, and try to score second. Patience, patience, patience. If everybody and their brother thinks they can send 5 and 6 guys at you with no fear of retribution, freaking hell, stop playing right into their hands. I would love to see the Patriots bring Brady back under center, and singlemindedly run the ball again and again. Mix in the lowest risk passes you can. Be cool with punting and living to see another series. Naturally, even I can see the weaknesses in my own theory – first, their punter is terrible, and second, they’re getting thin at RB. Third, its no better to be predictable with the run than it is the pass. But I don’t see how you get more consistent and efficient by getting your quarterback killed every play by trying to throw the ball all over the lot to people that are covered.

Greg: Well, at least Houston is here. Of all those things you mentioned, only Watson being missing is a concern. Hopefully he’ll be back soon.

Tim: Back to basics, they still have plenty enough to win this week. How they respond will give us a very good indication of what type of team this is. The injuries aren’t insurmountable, hell maybe they help the team focus more and start playing smarter, more mistake free football. They are still a dangerous team that will be in the mix come playoff time.

Bruce: I’m waiting for what we saw in the MINNESOTA GAME. The spread offense, quick strikes and long bombs, mixed in with some punishing runs from Corey Dillon. I think they can still function on offense, they just need to find a rhythm, which they’ve been unable to do since that game really, with a brief exception being the fourth quarter of the Lions game. I suspect Graham will be a bigger part of the passing game with Watson out, and Santiago will be used where Graham did his blocking.

Three weeks to go. Where do you put the Patriots in the field of AFC playoff hopefuls?

Bruce: They are what they are. I’ve got to put them fourth. San Diego, Baltimore and Indy have all been better this season. However, none of those teams put the fear of God into me. San Diego comes closest, but they’ve got the Marty factor. The Patriots have a couple weeks here to try and get healthy and put things together, but as things stand now, they’re looking at about the same fate as they had last year.

Scott: As I said above, the Pats are there with the inconsistent and incomplete Jaguars, the Bengals, the Chiefs and Broncos at the middle to bottom of the seedings. Hell, they may not even be as good as the Jags. I’m with Bruce – I can’t see how we can expect that this year is much different than last year. They may get lucky with a matchup here and there as the playoffs develop, but if they’re left to stand on their own merits, its all uphill.

Greg: Again, right now, they don’t look to be championship caliber. That could change, but we can only go based on what we see. They appear to be behind at a minimum San Diego. And Jacksonville has been impressive lately as well, but we’ll see how the Patriots match up against them next week. No one else really impresses me in the AFC.

Tim: They’ll qualify for the playoffs, but I can’t endorse them for a bye at this point. It doesn’t look possible the way Baltimore/San Diego are playing and Indy’s fast start and better AFC record. It’s looking like a home playoff game, which a wise man once told me is the only thing we can reasonably hope for as fans.

What did you think of Brady’s comments at his press conference Wednesday?

Greg: I didn’t see the big deal. He was trying to send a message a bit, I would think. But he probably does the same thing in private with his teammates all the time. I never understood why press conference comments took on the weight they do when they don’t even represent 1/10th of 1 percent of the verbal interaction between teammates or within a team.

Tim: I’ve never heard anything like that from him. It gave me pause. Coupled with the results of the game, Brady’s comments lead me to believe that these are intense times in the New England locker room. There is alot going on behind those closed doors, but I’d be guessing if I could tell you what it is. My hope is they adopt a more upstart approach to this season and rely on toughness and intelligence to win and not their God-given talent, which the players seem to be overrating.

Bruce: Perhaps they’re what the team needed. We’ll see. It kind of made me think of when Larry Bird called his teammates “a bunch of sissies” during the 1984 playoffs. That occasion had the desired effect as the came out fighting in the next game. I think Brady sees that perhaps some of the new guys aren’t doing all that they can to win each week, and the competitor in him is really bothered by that. Either that, or he’s just a bad mood since breaking up with Bridget.

Scott: I was taken aback. It’s one thing to say some people aren’t working hard enough, but when he told us certain players don’t listen to the coach, all the wind went out of my sails. He seemed to direct most of it towards players who are new to the team. I’m not surprised that Bill Belichick and Scott Pioli brought in players that weren’t a good on-field fit. It happens. I AM surprised they brought in players that apparently don’t listen to them. I’m under the impression THAT doesn’t happen very often.

Preeeeeeeediction time. Check your credibility at the door, boys. Let’s pick ’em. New York Jets at Minnesota, Cleveland at Baltimore, Jacksonville at Tennessee, Denver at Arizona, Kansas City at San Diego, and on Monday, Cincinnati at Indianapolis.

Tim (1-4 last week, 6-10 overall): NY (I hope Eric Mangini drops his wallet in the hopper) beats Minnesota. Baltimore (I hope Brian Billick gets an oral infection licking a mirror) beats Cleveland. Tennessee (I hope Jeff Fisher continues to get the respect he deserves) beats Jax. Denver (I hope Shanahan keeps a salt lick with him on the sideline) beats Arizona. Kansas City (I hope Herm Edwards gets his fly stuck on the fence the next time he climbs one for the camera) falls to San Diego. Indianapolis (I hope Tony Dungy returns to his home planet someday soon) falls to Cincinnati.

Bruce (2-3 last week, 48-27 overall): Jets. Ravens. Jacksonville. Denver. San Diego. Indianapolis. Any questions?

Scott (2-3 last week, 50-31 overall): I expect the Jets will beat the Vikes, even on the road, because the Jets insist on being a pain in the ass. Baltimore wins over the failing Browns, and I’ll take Jacksonville on the road over the improving Titans (great timing, Jeff, thanks). To continue the pessimism, the Broncos will find a way to win in Arizona, the Chargers will beat the visiting Chiefs, and on Monday night I’ll take the Colts at home.

Greg (3-2 last week, 46-35 overall): The Jets were exposed last week, Minnesota beats them at home to send them back to .500. Baltimore takes out the reeling Browns, Jacksonville slows down the Vince Young express, Arizona beats Denver, San Diego beats KC and the Bengals continue the Colts woes by running it down their throats again and sending them to their fourth loss in five games.

Okay, let’s really strain credulity here. Pats picks! Let’s ask this group of lifelong Patriots fans and season ticket holders for their objective opinion about this Sunday’s game. Remember, men – these picks count!

Bruce: Undermanned Patriots come out with a little fire. They win 24-7.

Scott: The Patriots can’t win here no matter what they do. Neither can I. I’ll take the Pats 16-13.

Greg: The Pats are banged up. This might be closer than we expect. But I can’t see Houston running the ball much, even with Vince Wilfork out. And they should be able to get pressure on David Carr, everyone else does. Of course Andre Johnson is a great receiver and they need to shut him down. They should move the ball some on offense. I’ll say Patriots 23-13.

Tim: I see 14-10 Patriots. The Texans are playing competitive football and Kubiak may have stolen some of Shanahan’s kryptonite on his way out of Colorado.

Bring out your Mediots of the Week! Bring out your Mediots of the Week!

Scott: I don’t have one, but I have a mea culpa – not that many people read it, but last Sunday I got all over Albert Breer of the Herald for his nagging Sunday morning column that insisted on reminding me of all the things that are wong with my football team. My response (“they ARE 9-3”) was as weak as the Patriots effort on Sunday. You had it right Albert, and I had it all wrong.

Greg: Lets go with Dennis and Callahan for their absurd four hours on a alleged sports show about “the war on Christmas”….probably the most laughable, paranoid delusional concept I have ever heard of. Christmas is everywhere. Like everyone else, I love Christmas. But I saw displays in stores this year before Halloween. I heard songs on the radio before Thanksgiving. The Wrentham Outlets opened at midnight Thanksgiving evening. You can’t walk 5 feet down the street without some reminder of how commercialized the Holiday has become. And its more hyped and commercialized and fatiguing, at times, from the commercials to over decorated houses to shopping every year. Certainly more than when I was a kid and it was commercialized then. Where is this war these morons speak of? Invented in their little heads I suppose. Well, that’s it for this week. See you next week, I have to go finish my shopping.

Tim: I avoided the local coverage partially due to travel back from Miami and partially because I had no interest in a thorough accounting of that game from the usual suspects, but for fun let’s just highlight one and give him some recognition for his body of work. I give you, Steve Burton. Steve’s done nothing egregious in Patriots coverage since he asked Tom Brady to “talk about” his locker room hijinks with Cassel, sounding like a special needs 5th grader talking to an honor student 8th grader, but that doesn’t mean we can’t salute him for being the dimmest, most inept broadcast personality in our fair region for years now. A Steve Burton interview makes the viewer’s brain cells quake in fear and his only peer in that department that I can think of is Butch Stearns. Three cheers to double digit IQ’s and Daddy’s reputation! Three cheers for Steve Burton!

Bruce: Gotta go with Borges and Felger just trying to stir stuff up by suggesting Belichick could bolt for Houston after the season. Borges made the suggestion, saying that he had “friends” who told him this. Felger said Belichick’s contract was due to expire after this season and that no one from the Patriots has said otherwise. He forgot that Robert Kraft said right in the aftermath of the playoff loss last winter that this season would not be the last year on Belichick’s deal.