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National Columnist

NFL's worst 4-1 team? Maybe the Pats, who look like it vs. Bengals

CINCINNATI -- If you didn't know better, you'd say the Patriots are a bad football team. But you do know better, because you know the Patriots came into Sunday as one of only five undefeated teams in the NFL. You know their head coach is Bill Belichick, their quarterback is Tom Brady and their record was 4-0. You know the Patriots aren't bad.

But that's you. Me? I don't know a damn thing. So I trust my eyes, and my eyes saw a bad football team Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium. Hell, my eyes saw two bad football teams Sunday.

The Bengals had a bad day, with a bad interception early and a terrible fumble late and a handful of stupid penalties at stupid times. And the Bengals beat the Patriots anyway. The score was 13-6, which is pretty much what this game deserved. The Bengals were bad, and the Patriots were worse.

Does that mean the Patriots are a bad football team overall? Probably not. Bad football teams don't win four games in a row -- do they? -- although the Patriots were so atrocious on Sunday that they're making me take a hard look at those first four wins. And I'll be honest: Those first four wins aren't all that impressive. They beat rookie quarterbacks in the first two weeks, EJ Manuel of Buffalo and Geno Smith of the Jets, and they won those two games by a combined five points. They beat the Bucs in the third game, so you know that doesn't mean anything. Last week they beat the Falcons in Atlanta, so last week was the first time the Patriots actually did something worthy of a good team.

Then again, the Falcons are 1-3.

Which leads us to Sunday, and the 13-6 stink-bomb the Patriots threw onto the field at Paul Brown Stadium. Again, this wasn't a good team the Patriots were playing. This was the Bengals, and the Bengals were missing enough key components on defense to counter whatever alleged good components the Patriots were missing on offense. Cincinnati played without star cornerback Leon Hall and defensive end Michael Johnson, not a star but good enough to be given the franchise tag this season. You ask me, that equals whatever the Patriots were missing on offense, which to be fair was tailback Stevan Ridley and tight end Rob Gronkowski.

But everyone has injures in the NFL. Injuries are an excuse, and after the game Belichick was in no mood to talk about injuries, excuses or pretty much anything. He's never in the mood to wax loquacious with the media, but Belichick took the grump act to a rarely seen level Sunday when he was asked five questions and gave a grand total of 74 words in reply. Here were his answers to each of the final four questions. What were the questions? It doesn't matter. Not when these are the answers:

"We didn't perform well enough."

"We've got to play better and I've got to coach better. I give Cincinnati credit. They have a good defense."

"No."

"I don't know. I'll have to go look at the film."

Belichick has made a career out of saying nothing, but usually it's because he doesn't want to say anything. This year it's different. This year he has nothing to say. Neither do his players, who couldn't offer up anything concrete about what went wrong Sunday. Brady said there were mistakes but wouldn't name them. Safety Steve Gregory said "we'll have to look at the film." Receiver Julian Edelman said "we didn't execute."

Patriots center Ryan Wendell told the media to find the answers themselves.

"If you look at the film, you'll see what it is," he said. "Everybody needs to play better."

Wisdom dispensed, the media disbursed. One reporter stayed back to ask Wendell for something, anything, in particular. Wendell's eyes fluttered before he composed himself, said again to "look at the film" and "they did a lot of things" and then said the following over his shoulder as he got the hell out of there:

"I give them a lot of credit."

With 11 games left, the Patriots have plenty of time to prove this loss was misleading -- or to prove that their 4-0 start was misleading. In the Patriots' favor, their remaining schedule is friendly aside from visits next week by the Saints and Nov. 24 by the Broncos. It helps that the AFC East is down, and that the Steelers (who play the Patriots on Nov. 3), Texans (Dec. 1) and Ravens (Dec. 22) are down as well. It helps that Carolina and Cleveland are on the schedule.

It would help more if the Patriots could block somebody. And if their receivers could get open. And once open, if they could catch the ball.

It would help if Tom Brady looked like Tom Brady, and not whoever was wearing his jersey on Sunday.

The numbers say Brady was bad (18 for 38 for 197 yards and one interception) and the numbers don't lie. He was bad. He wasn't helped by six drops -- three from Danny Amendola -- or by the inability of Edelman to come down with the ball midway through the fourth quarter as Bengals cornerback Adam Jones was clawing at it in the end zone.

Brady was bad -- his passer rating was 52.2, for god's sake -- but being that bad requires help, and he had it. At the same, it's worth noting that even before the game Brady's completion percentage was a career-low 58.8 percent, and that his 87.4 passer rating was nearly 10 points below his career average. The receivers are kids, Welker is gone, Gronkowski is hurt and Aaron Hernandez is, well, right. But Brady has almost never had an all-star cast of receivers, and still he puts up Hall of Fame numbers. Maybe he can't do that anymore. He's 36 years old, you know.

Point being, the Patriots are a wreck on offense and their defense recently lost anchor Vince Wilfork (Achilles') for the season. Linebacker Jerod Mayo is great, linebacker Brandon Spikes looked great Sunday -- then again, it was the Bengals offense -- and defensive end Chandler Jones is disruptive. Aqib Talib is becoming a lockdown corner. If I didn't call your name, sorry. You're not worth naming.

That's the Patriots. They were the worst 4-0 team in the league before the game, and they might be the worst 4-1 team in the league now. Maybe the answer is Gronkowski and Ridley. Maybe the answer is running back Shane Vereen, who could return form wrist surgery after Week 10.

Maybe the answer is what we saw Sunday. Maybe the Patriots aren't very good this season. It wasn't going to last forever.

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