logoby Chris Warner

For Patriots fans, watching Sunday’s preseason 27-10 loss against the Buccaneers was like getting tickets to see Michael Phelps swim, only Phelps got replaced with a junior lifeguard from the community pool whose relay teammates tripped off the diving block.

How best to describe this debacle? Try this: in the first half, Tampa had 114 yards rushing, 120 yards passing. Meanwhile, New England had 174 yards total for the entire game.

Sure, sure: it’s only a preseason scrimmage. Someone just forgot to tell the Bucs.

On the opening possession, Brian “My Dad is Famous!” Griese drove Tampa Bay through the New England defense like a duck boat over the Charles, hitting all eight of his passes for 39 yards on a 17-play, 80-yard drive that took almost 10 minutes off the clock. The Buccaneers added to the misery late in the second half on a drive led by Luke “My Brother is Famous!” McCown, who finished up with two dump passes in a row to get the ball into the end zone.

Tampa Bay’s backs ran through more stops than a driver with a foggy windshield. Throughout the half, a variety of running backs (Ernest Graham? Say who?) squeezed through openings that were there and juked defenders who weren’t. Watching this first half felt like calling 911 and listening to the operator tell you what a lousy day he’s had. The Pats showed zero urgency. No one even seemed to care.

Then, of course, came the offense. Should we talk about the offense?

Are you sure?

Matt Cassel started with a three-and-out series that looked about as inspiring as a glass of lukewarm milk. A decent Pats drive into Buccaneer territory ended in a Kevin Faulk fumble. Behind McCown, Tampa Bay drove for a field goal with 7:25 left in the half; the Patriots went three-and-out; afterwards, Tampa scored a touchdown. Cassel utilized the services of Randy Moss (two passes, two first downs) to get the Pats their lone score of the half, a 53-yard boot by Stephen Gostkowski as time ran out to make the halftime score a slightly less nauseating 17-3.

Any sense of respectability was lost within the first 14 seconds of the second half, when Dan Connolly’s snap bounced off Cassel’s outstretched hand for a perfect pick-it-up-and-run fumble and touchdown by Buc safety Sabby Piscatelli (which may or may not be the new special at Olive Garden). Rookie Kevin O’Connell came in ahead of Matt Gutierrez, a fact that happened to be noticed by just about every Patriots fan with the ability to translate T. V. images into real-life concepts. He immediately threw an interception.

To say the ugliness ended there is like saying the Flood stopped after forty days. The damage was done.

Am I overreacting? Could be. Maybe this was one of those “Thanks for Nothing” games, where John Lynch’s return gave the home team a kind of spark that failed to touch the visitors. It’s reminiscent of Corey Dillon going back to Cincinnati in the 2004 preseason, a stomping by the Bengals that gave their fan base a certain sense of revenge. (The blowout failed to translate to the regular season for Cincy, but it must have been fun at the time.)

Offensive woes make sense when the leader has yet to take his place. When screens resemble open windows and the running game looks more like trudging, well, much of that can improve with practice. On defense, it feels different. Missed tackles and loose coverage can be expected during the preseason, yet to see them on a consistent basis with the first team has to give fans pause. Next week will give a better idea whether or not Sunday’s performance was an aberration. If New England dog paddles while Philadelphia freestyles, this could turn into a long preseason (though some might say it has already).

Time to attempt optimism. Herewith, five positives from a rough night:

Richard Seymour. Yes, New England’s rushing defense left something to be desired (like the design of the Edsel, say, or the planning for the Donner party. I could go on). Seymour was seen forcing double-teams and pressuring the quarterback on a few occasions. Again, let’s watch next week, but this could provide a preview as to how his improved health will better his performance this year.

Remember: optimism. Smiles, everyone, smiles.

O’Connell. After his opening interception, O’Connell kept his head and led the Patriots for their only touchdown of the game, setting up Heath Evans’ one-yard plunge with a 17-yard completion to C. J. Jones. O’Connell converted a fourth down on the drive and used his feet to positive effect. With the scarcity of Gutierrez’s playing time, and the iffy performance of Cassel (hold on: is “iffy” an expletive? I think I meant something else), O’Connell has shown the awareness and poise of a solid rookie prospect. Of course, he hopes to develop at the rate of a summer movie protagonist in a montage, but so far he shows as much promise as any Patriots rookie QB.

And don’t go giving me that “I-knew-Tom-Brady-was-going-to-be-great” stuff. Get in line behind the “Start-Bledsoe-now” crowd and the “We-should-use-Michael-Bishop-more” group. You know who you are.

Matthew Slater. Let’s see: Ellis Hobbs returned two kicks for just over 20 yards each. Ho, hum. Slater returned his first kick for 27 yards. He appeared on the edge of breaking a long gain each time. Add to that the fact that he’s first on the scene during most kicks (eliciting a penalty on punt coverage), and the special teams ace has come as advertised. My only request to special teams coach Brad Seely: let Slater be the starting kick returner. Get your foot off the brake. Put some nitrous in the tank. Use another car metaphor; whatever, just put in Slater.

Gostkowski. A 53-yarder right down the chute! Kickoffs into the end zone! What’s not to like?

It’s still preseason. Yeah, I’m reaching. I was thinking of submitting the rookie linebackers again for your consideration (Jarod Mayo had a couple of nice stops in coverage; Vince Redd had a sack late), but Shawn Crable and Gary Guyton looked as if they missed assignments (Crable on the edge, Guyton in coverage) while Mayo seemed a little off. I wanted to talk about the running of Laurence Maroney, but it appeared that after every scamper for decent yards he got swarmed for a loss on the next play.

Moss and Welker? They’re still Moss and Welker. A positive fact, to be sure, but they shouldn’t have had anything to do with this eyesore in the first place.

No, the best aspects of this game are that it ended and it didn’t count. The Pats will look to regroup and play at home vs. the Eagles. Keep watch to see whether the players approach Preseason Game Three as if it actually means something. We can only hope. In the meantime, stay positive.