The Patriots have averaged 33 points a game through the first month of the season and heading into Thursday night's matchup against the Buccaneers, have the league's No. 2 offense, behind only the Chiefs. This is not news, of course, because for much of this century, the Patriots -- thanks in large part to the ageless wonder, Tom Brady -- have efficiently and consistently scored points.

It's goes a long way in explaining the five Super Bowl titles in seven appearances. But there's more to the success story; we saw it most recently eight months ago when Dont'a Hightower strip-sacked Matt Ryan in Super Bowl LI, and two years before that, in Super Bowl XLIX, with cornerback Malcolm Butler's game-saving interception.

Bottom line: The Patriots defense has been integral to their championship runs. Here's a look at how those units ranked during the team's run to five Lombardi Trophies from 2001-2016 (via Football Outsiders' metrics):

  • 2016: 16th
  • 2014: 12th
  • 2004: 7th
  • 2003: 2nd
  • 2001: 13th

And here's how the offense ranked on those championship teams:

  • 2016: 2nd
  • 2014: 6th
  • 2004: 3rd
  • 2003: 14th
  • 2001: 11th

Till last season, the Patriots' Super Bowl teams were well-balanced. And while itt was no secret that the 2016 squad had defensive shortcomings, the offseason would shore up those concerns. Here are the names added to the roster through free agency, the draft or via trade: Kony Ealy, Lawrence Guy, Derek Rivers, David Harris and Stephon Gilmore. The Pats also re-signed Hightower and Duron Harmon and decided against trading Butler.

On paper, this group looked menacing. To the point that almost everyone -- us included -- conceded the AFC to New England and immediately began trying to figure out which NFC outfit had a chance to slow them down in the Super Bowl. But Ealy was waived during preseason; Rivers landed on injured reserve with a torn ACL; Harris has been on the field for just seven snaps and Gilmore, once considered a shutdown corner with the Bills, has been one of the Patriots' worst defenders. Lawrence Guy is the only new face that has played well.

So yeah, no surprise here but the Patriots' defense is bad. But not only are they bad, they're the worst. That's right, this group ranks dead last -- worse than the Colts, the Raiders and even the hapless Browns.

And things could get worse before they get better. New England's secondary is in shambles and Tampa Bay's offense ranks ninth in passing.

One more reason for concern:

But Bill Belichick sounded almost optimistic this week when looking for silver linings from last Sunday's home loss to the Panthers.

"Really throughout the game, I thought we were OK rushing the quarterback," Belichick told reporters. "We hit him a couple of times but he got the ball off, but I think the rush was competitive. I mean, obviously, it could be better. I'm not saying it was great, but there were times we beat blockers and got to the quarterback, got close to the quarterback, and a couple of times he got rid of the ball. ... I thought it was consistent."

"Consistency" is the lesser known brother of "Do your job," something Belichick no doubt preached all week. Whether it takes is another matter, but here's the good news: These mistakes are fixable. The only question is can Brady and the offense carry the defense until these issues are sorted?

Don't sleep on the Bucs

If you live outside Florida, it's easy overlook the Buccaneers. They last went to the playoffs in 2007 when Jon Gruden was the coach and Jeff Garcia was the quarterback. And from 2011-2015 the team cycled through three coaches, four starting quarterbacks, didn't have a winning season and finished dead last in the division every year. Everything changed in 2016 when Dirk Koetter replaced Lovie Smith; Tampa Bay went 9-7 and Jameis Winston continued his march to full-fledged franchise quarterback. He ranked 15th last season among all passers, and through three games in 2017 he's seventh in terms of value per play, ahead of Ben Roethlisberger, Matt Ryan and Aaron Rodgers.

None of this has not been lost on Belichick, who has never faced a team coached by Koetter or an offense led by Winston.

"With Winston, I think [Koetter's] done a great job with him in two years, probably, arguably as good as any coach has done with any quarterback in the first two years of a career," Belichick said this week, via "Some of that's the player, but certainly a lot of that's the guy coaching him, the guy working with him every day. I think Coach Koetter and his staff have done a great job there."

As an assistant, Koetter has faced Belichick on three occasions; as Jaguars offensive coordinator, he lost to Belichick in the 2007 playoffs. He lost again with Jacksonville in 2009 and with Atlanta in 2013. Still, Belichick is taking nothing for granted.

"I think [Koetter's] done a great job -- done a very good job offensively, uses his personnel well," the Patriots' coach said. "He mixes up formations, uses a good variety of personnel, formations, motion, has good balance in the running game and the passing game, has a good balance in the passing game with the receivers, tight ends and backs. He finds creative ways every week to make explosive plays. He does a real good job ... how tough he makes it for you to really get any good solid tendencies or keys."

The last time we met...

These two teams have only played eight times in the regular season dating back to 1976, with the Patriots holding a 6-2 edge. Three of the last four games have been in Foxborough -- with the other taking place in London -- and the Pats are 3-1. But the last time New England came to Tampa, the Bucs cruised to a 27-7 win. That was Nov. 16, 1997. For some perspective: Brady was still at the University of Michigan, sitting on the bench behind Brian Griese. Belichick was in his first season as an assistant with the Jets, and Jameis Winston was three years old.

That 1997 get-together pitted Drew Bledsoe against Trent Dilfer. Bledsoe finished 13 of 25 for 117 yards with no touchdowns and two interceptions; Dilfer was 21 of 29 for 209 yards with a touchdown. Curtis Martin rushed for just 26 yards while Mike Alstott ran for 91 yards and a score.

Keep an eye on these guys

DeSean Jackson was signed in the offseason because, even at 30, he remains one of the NFL's most explosive playmakers. We've yet see that explosiveness in Tampa and Jackson expressed some frustration about that reality during Sunday's 25-23 victory over the Giants. He's been targeted 20 times in three games and has nine receptions for 143 yards and a touchdown. Since coming into the league in 2008, Jackson has never been targeted less or caught fewer passes in the first three games to start the season.

"It's definitely hard, feeling like being a veteran in this league 10 years. … But I'm not going to abort ship," Jackson said Tuesday, via "I'll stay on course, stay on plan. Eventually it will come together. We just got to continue to go out there and keep beating, beating away and (doing) the things you need to do to get better. ...

"It's just part of being a playmaker in this league that wants to make plays. Anytime I get the opportunity to get the ball, I just want to make good plays and help my team win the game and just create big plays. It was just a part of that."

Mike Evans is picking up where he left off last season. In three games, he has 19 catches for 227 yards and two scores. A year ago, he finished with 96 catches for 1,321 yards and 12 touchdowns. According to Pro Football Focus, Winston's passer rating is 97.9 when targeting Evans, and Evans is ninth in PFF's yards-per-route-run metric, just behind A.J. Green and Tyreek Hill. Look for Winston to target Evans early and often against the Patriots' discombobulated secondary.

The Patriots secondary, in a word, has been horrendous. This point was slammed home with a resounding thud in Gillette Stadium on Sunday against a Panthers offense that had struggled through its first three games. When it was over, Carolina had scored 33 points and racked up 444 total yards. Cam Newton finished 22 of 29 for 316 yards with three touchdown passes and one rushing touchdown. The day was filled with blown coverage, perhaps none more egregious than when no fewer than four Patriots defenders covered Christian McCaffrey while Fozzy Whittaker sashayed into the end zone:

It gets worse when you see the moving-pictures proof; both Whittaker and tight end Ed Dixon ARE WIDE OPEN.

Gilmore called the Whittaker touchdown a "communication issue" while safety Devin McCourty was less diplomatic: "Bad play. It had to look like a couple idiots out there."

Safety Duron Harmon added: "It's [communication] obviously something we need to work a little harder at. Obviously what we're doing is not good enough, so we need to go take a look in the mirror tonight and just look and realize. Are we doing enough to win? Are we doing enough to be good on defense? Are we doing enough to be a sound football team? Today we weren't, especially on defense."

And safety Devin McCourty conceded that "you have to be concerned" with the way the defense is playing.

Well, yeah.

Dispatches from Fantasy Island

If you need help at wide receiver, Fantasy expert Jamey Eisenberg says you should consider adding Danny Amendola.

In two of the three games Amendola has played, he has six catches on seven targets, and he's scored 10 Fantasy points in both games. He's done a nice job replacing Julian Edelman as the slot receiver for the Patriots , and he could be valuable in Week 5 at Tampa Bay because the Buccaneers have two standout cornerbacks on the outside in Brent Grimes and Vernon Hargreaves . Amendola is a sleeper this week and definitely has long-term appeal, especially in PPR leagues. He's worth at least 10 percent of your FAAB dollars. 

And if you're looking for a tight end, Cameron Brate is a good choice.

Brate has another solid matchup in Week 5 against the Patriots, and New England has allowed three touchdowns to tight ends this year, along with a tight end scoring at least six Fantasy points in a standard league each week. Brate just came off a solid game in another good matchup against the Giants with four catches for 80 yards and a touchdown on six targets, and he now has eight catches for 113 yards and two touchdowns on 10 targets in his past two outings against the Vikings and Giants. O.J. Howard (31 percent) is also worth a look this week in deeper leagues after he scored against the Giants, but he only had two catches for 63 yards and the touchdown on four targets. Brate is worth 5 percent of your FAAB dollars.

They said these words

"I'm thinking about, 'What am I going to say to him when I see him and meet him?' One thing I learned from Kurt Warner was to take advantage of your moments. That's going to be a great moment to see one of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play the game to line up against you in [Raymond James Stadium]." -- Jameis Winston on seeing Tom Brady for the first time

Who ya got?

Three of six experts have the Patriots both covering the 5.5-point spread and winning outright.

"This Patriots team has major defensive issues. They can't stop anybody. The Bucs haven't been great so far, but on a short week at home they have a big edge. Even so, I think Tom Brady will put up a number here. Pats take it in a close one." --'s Pete Prisco, who has the Pats winning, 31-30