By Jeremy Gottlieb, Patriots Daily Staff

Who, exactly, are the New England Patriots? Are they an elite team with championship aspirations? Are they one of a truckload of very NFL teams that contain a serious flaw? Are they the confident, mentally tough outfit Tom Brady has referred to more than once in the aftermath of two recent losses? Or are they mediocre, an also-ran?

Sorry to get wicked existential on you. But that’s where the head’s at a day removed from the Pats 24-20 loss to the Giants on Sunday at Gillette Stadium. Whereas last week’s loss at Pittsburgh elicited more piss and vinegar, this most recent setback inspires questions, and lots of em. For the first time all season, the Pats defense carried them, picked up a strangely sedated offense and looked poised to win a game for them. Then, with just over seven minutes to play and a 13-10 lead, that very same D reverted to its former self, allowing two 80-plus yard TD drives, the second of which took an astonishing 81 seconds and ended the game. On top of that, for the third week in a row, the formerly intergalactic offense struggled for long stretches, stagnating for the entire length of the first half, and was sabotaged more than once by none other than Brady himself. And once again, personnel was an issue, with the Pats going down in flames with no fewer than five undrafted free agents, two of whom are special teams players lucky to see one or two defensive snaps per game, on the field and in key roles. What were they doing out there? Just add that one to the list of questions already recorded. And if you have any answers, please speak up. So with that, let’s get to this week’s report card.

Quarterbacks: C-

Aside from the fact that it’s difficult to remember the last time Brady, normally a pinpoint marksman, was so inaccurate throwing the ball. He looked like Mark Sanchez out there at times. Passes were underthrown, overthrown and behind receivers all game long. There was the occasional dropped ball but for the most part, particularly in the first half, Brady was in nowheresville. He tossed two more interceptions, giving him 10 on the season, or two and half times as many as he had all of last year. He lost a fumble. He looked rattled and skittish in the face of the Giants pass rush, most of which consisted of four guys beating six. He was off, plain and simple. The Pats got a break in the later stages of the third quarter and throughout the fourth when he seemed to find himself or a hole in the Giants defense, or both, and led four scoring drives in the game’s final 20 minutes, including what should have been yet another game-winner with 1:36 remaining on the clock on a strike over the middle to Rob Gronkowski. He finished the day 28-of-49 for 342 yards and two TDs, solid numbers to be sure. But there were also those three turnovers. And all the missed throws. And the failure to spread the ball around (Gronk and Wes Welker combined to be targeted for 25 of Brady’s 49 throws). And the confusion. Brady figured it out on Sunday, he just did it a little too late. But given how minuscule the Pats margin for error is on a weekly basis, one and half quarters of typical Tom Brady just isn’t enough. He has as much to work on this week in preparation for Sunday night’s shitstorm with the Jets as anyone.

Running Backs: C

It’s not necessarily this group’s fault. They were OK. And early on, it looked like they might be the key to the Pats offense, with the Law Firm of BenJarvus Green-Ellis scampering for 18 yards on their first play from scrimmage. But for whatever reason, after that run they jumped ship, gaining just 40 yards on 13 attempts as a team for the remainder of the first half. The Giants came in allowing 130 yards per game on the ground, making the decision to go to the passing game as the focal point so rapidly somewhat curious to say the least. Overall, the Pats picked up 106 yards on 24 carries, a healthy 4.4 YPA. But why wasn’t there more? Yep, another question. BJGE picked up 53 yards overall on only 12 carries while Danny Woodhead, playing more again with Kevin Faulk back on the sideline, produced probably his most effective game of the season with 60 total yards including a couple of big catch-and-runs in the later stages. Only Stevan Ridley, who had 16 carries for 42 yards in his last three games after putting up 16 carries for 139 yards and a TD in his first two, left something to be desired. Well, and Bill Belichick, who along with his offensive staff failed to look a gift horse in the mouth and attack the Giants biggest weakness.

Wide Receivers: C+

Say this for Wes Welker – he’s the Pats MVP by such a wide margin, it’s not close. Welker rang up nine more catches for 136 more yards while continuing to take a massive beating on practically all of them. Late in the first half he was piledriven to the turf and his and his teammates reactions seemed to reflect he’d broken his collarbone or dislocated his shoulder or maybe even broken some ribs. But when FOX came back from commercial, there he was sprinting out into his customary slot position as if nothing had even happened. If there’s a tougher, more resilient player on this team than Welker, someone please let me know. The only problem is, after Welker there’s not much there at this position. Deion Branch is equally capable of putting up huge numbers or not even showing up at this point; Sunday represented an example of the latter as he finished with two measly catches for 21 measly yards. But at least he did that. Because surprise! Chad Ochocinco did nothing, again! Can you believe it? And this week, the Pats actually worked their asses off to get him involved, at times even appearing to force the action his way, letting him play 18 whole snaps and calling his number for Brady five whole times. Naturally, he caught none of those five passes and on more than a couple of them, looked like he and Brady just met in the locker room five minutes before the game. He was positive afterward, telling the Boston Herald that “I just gotta keep working with Tommy, that’s about it. Everything is there. We’re missing it by this much.” Given the fact that Ochocinco has now been here over three months working with Brady every day and not only still has just nine catches on the entire season but hasn’t had a single one of them in five games, hearing him say something like that doesn’t exactly warm the heart. He is, was and shall remain the biggest free agent bust of the Bill Belichick era and that includes both Adalius Thomas and Duane Starks (not to mention Albert Haynesworth, but we’ll get to him later). Man…

Tight Ends: B

There’s one other player in Brady’s Circle of Trust besides Welker and that’s Gronk. Eight more catches, 101 more yards, another TD (the shoulda-been game-winner). Gronk now has at least seven catches in four of eight games this year (with six in another) and even though he had a couple of brutal drops on Sunday (one on his and Brady’s bread and butter seam route, not able to hold onto one of Brady’s best throws of the day), he still posted yet another big game and is invaluable to this offense (74 of 78 offensive snaps). Elsewhere, Aaron Hernandez still looks slightly hobbled by a knee injury suffered in Week 2 against the Chargers, but still managed to burn his man for the first of the Pats two fourth quarter TDs and finished the day with four catches for 35 yards. Given how thin the Pats are at receiver, imagine where they’d be without this duo.

Offensive Line: D

It’s getting slightly alarming now. As happened so famously in Super Bowl XLII, the Pats O-line was pushed around and sent to its collective heels by a four-man Giants rush at several points in the game. There were some more diverse looks shown by the Giants D and to the Pats credit, they used Nate Solder at tight end on nearly a third of their offensive snaps in an attempt to counter. Brady was only sacked twice and hit just three other times. But he was under pressure and in a hurry a great deal, and part of the reason for his accuracy problems likely have to do with being forced to throw early a lot. Logan Mankins had his customary false start penalty and Matt Light looked slow-ish on the left edge, but other than a very high shotgun snap by Dan Connolly that forced him to the bench for a series (Ryan Wendell replaced him), there weren’t a lot of glaring, individual problems. This is a collective grade. When you are getting beaten with any regularity by less men, it’s not the scheme, it’s the one-on-one matchups that need to be looked at. And all five of the Pats regular O-linemen lost those matchups enough times to warrant that big, fat, ugly D. If Brady doesn’t have time, he and the entire offense can’t get into the rhythm it needs to be successful. That was too often the case on Sunday.

Defensive Line: B-

One of the better games this group has played all year but when you consider that statement in relation to the previous seven games, that’s not saying much. Still, there’s some room for encouragement here. There were no sacks but Giants QB Eli Manning was hit eight times, seven of them by a D-lineman. Andre Carter continues to be the only member of this unit who even seems close to a capable pass rusher, getting in Manning’s face three times. And Vince Wilfork, who has proven himself very adept at situations other than stopping the run this year and lined up a couple of pops on Manning himself. It also shouldn’t unnoticed that Brandon Deaderick saw his most extensive action in ages and played a very solid game. But it still wasn’t near enough. The Giants only managed 3.8 yards per rushing attempt but that was without their lead back Ahmad Bradshaw. Brandon Jacobs picked up 72 yards on 18 carries and scored the first TD of the game on a 10-yard run notable for the fact that no one even breathed on him. That was because Haynesworth, who would be a bust on the Ochocinco level if the Pats hadn’t cut his salary so dramatically and based most of his pay on playing time incentives, was buried by Giants guard David Diehl on the play. If you are ever looking for a textbook way to run block with little to no resistance, watch the replay (or look at a still photo or two) of this run. Haynesworth may as well have just laid down. Perhaps that’s why he didn’t play another snap in the game even though nearly 25 minutes of time remained on the clock. Or maybe it’s just because he’s fat and out of shape and doesn’t give a shit. I’m leaning toward the latter. Haynesworth has shown two, maybe three flashes of the player he’s capable of being in eight games. That’s a lousy percentage, which suits Haynesworth well, him being a lousy player and all. Just play Kyle Love and Deaderick and Ron Brace and let Haynesworth ride the bike, pick fights with his position coach on the sideline and hang out at the post-game buffet table. He’d probably be just as effective as he is when he’s playing nine of 72 defensive snaps.

Linebackers: C

Poor Brandon Spikes. He’s really been coming into his own the past few weeks and on Sunday, he was the best player on the Pats defense until he left midway through the third quarter with a sprained MCL. He’ll likely miss time and that’s too bad because the D responds to him in ways they never, ever respond to their supposed leader Jerod Mayo. When Spikes left, the Giants had scored three points in two quarters plus five minutes of playing time. After he left, with Gary Guyton and special teamer Tracy White left to fill in, the Giants scored 21 points in about a quarter and a half. You do the math. It couldn’t have had anything to do with Mayo, could it have? He played every down. He had zero solo tackles. He went what seemed like his 3,764th straight game without even sniffing doing anything impactful. And he’s the leader, the glue guy, the playmaker of this defense. Maybe that’s why its ranked dead last in the entire league. Props to Rob Ninkovich, who has been hard to fins the past few weeks but blew up on Sunday with seven tackles, a pass breakup and a big hit on Manning. As for White, it’s a real tough one to swallow. When Manning hit tight end Jake Ballard on a missile over the middle for 30 yards on the Giants game-winning drive, a perfect strike that could only have been caught on a superhumanly athletic play (which is exactly what Ballard made), White was all over him. The coverage couldn’t have been better. It was just a perfect throw and a spectacular catch, no more, no less. Alll you can do is tip your cap to Manning and Ballard. Then, on the winning TD pass to Ballard, White played run from the spot Spikes would normally be in, a must given the ball was on the 1 and Manning executed a perfect play fake, which in turn left White a step behind Ballard when he caught the ball in the end zone. It should not have come to the point that White was on the field for such crucial moments; the Pats depth at linebacker is a huge issue, especially considering how limited Guyton is. But to pin this one on White isn’t fair. He was put in an extremely tough spot and at least he didn’t humiliate himself, as a number of his teammates already have at one point or another this season.

Defensive Backs: C-

It could have been a great, great day for Kyle Arrington. He picked off a Manning pass in the end zone in the third quarter in particularly athletic fashion. But he was also burned hideously on the Giants second to last drive, first picking up a brutal, 35-yard pass interference penalty for getting torched by Giants receiver Mario Manningham then running him over without even trying to turn his head toward the ball, then allowing Manningham to singe him again a few plays later in catching a TD pass (on which Arrington again stood still while Manningham ran right by him and made no effort to make a play on the ball as it sailed over his head and into Manningham’s arms). Arrington is a nice player, an overachiever who has picked off six passes this season. It’s not his fault that every cornerback Belichick has drafted or acquired other than Devin McCourty over the past five years can’t play. Arrington would be a fourth or fifth corner on a decent defense, he wouldn’t be on the roster of a truly great one. On this one, he starts and plays pretty much every down. McCourty was fine and seems to be coming out of his shell at least a little bit (he even had a pass breakup on Sunday!!!). And then there’s Patrick Chung. On the big play to Ballard late in the game, even though he had a great angle and all kinds of room to lay a flying shoulder on Ballard and potentially separate the airborne tight end from the ball, he instead chose to try for the interception and came up literally empty, whiffing completely. He didn’t touch the ball or Ballard. It was an awful play by Chung and showed that even though he seems to be one of the only guys in this secondary that may be even pretty good, he is still prone to the kind of thoughtless, boneheaded mistakes that are unacceptable anywhere, especially on a defense with exactly zero margin for error. Oh yeah and also, Chung took himself out of the game on the sixth play of the Giants eight-play, final drive, which meant Sergio Brown had to come in. Brown then leveled Giants receiver Victor Cruz at the goal line even though the pass in that vicinity was overthrown by at least 10 yards. The Giants got the ball at the 1 and two plays later, won the game. As bad as Brown’s mistake was, and it was bad, he shouldn’t be out there at that point, injuries or not. And he probably knows it, too. In the fourth quarter, Manning was 8-of-13 for 92 yards and two TDs and the Pats committed two pass interference penalties for 55 yards. I need a drink.

Special Teams: F

Here’s another question for the list: Why is Julian Edelman on this team? He had five punt returns for 17 yards on Sunday (that’s 3.4 yards per return) and fumbled another that came hot on the heels of the Pats holding the Giants to a three-and-out deep in their own territory. Edelman has three catches for 27 yards and 14 punt returns for 122 yards (8.7 yards per return) this season. Oh yeah, he also has an arrest for indecent assault and battery. Enough is enough, please. Elsewhere, Stephen Gostkowski missed a 27-yard field goal. That’s 27 yards. Yep, 27. And, for the umpteenth week in a row, the Pats averaged just over 20 yards per kick return, never even approaching taking one past their own 25. Sorry, Zoltan. Your 45-yard average on five punts, while quite impressive, can’t crack the mountain of sucktitude put forth by the rest of the special teams on Sunday.

Coaching: C-

Scheme-wise, it was all looking good for a while on defense. The Giants were missing two of their top offensive players (Bradshaw and No. 1 receiver Hakeem Nicks) but Belichick cut down on the deep zones, allowed for a little bit more man coverage and even dialed up a few blitzes that we haven’t seen out of this outfit in a long time (one particular look that had Mark Anderson dropping into coverage and breaking up a pass was particularly interesting). But late in the game, everything instantly went back in time to when stops, so plentiful for the first three and half quarters on Sunday, were more or less out of the question. The Giants ran TD drives of eight plays for 85 yards and eight plays for 80 yards in the final moments of the game. At this point, you have to blame the players and because of that, the spotlight moves away from Belichick the coach and shines once again on Belichick the GM. Guys like Arrington, White and Brown are on the field at the most important time because of injuries, sure. But the depth would be far more capable if there hadn’t been so so many blunders in choosing players over the last handful of years, whether it was through the draft or free agency. And offensively, there’s little rhyme or reason as to why the pass/run ratio was over 2-to-1, especially given the Giants issues defending the run. There are some major problems with the Patriots right now. As if having to repair the defense almost entirely with barely more than spare parts at his disposal in the middle of a season wasn’t enough for Belichick, now he has to figure out what’s wrong with his offense, which has averaged 18.5 points over its last three games, as well as why something awful happens on special teams at least once a week. If he’s finished, as some seem to think he may be, the Pats won’t find their way out of this. If he’s not, they will. It’s not the slam dunk it may have seemed as recently as a couple weeks ago. But it’s still pretty safe to bet on the latter.