Days away from Tom Brady's much-anticipated return to New England with the Buccaneers, it would be natural to want to read about, say, some high-level, late-night prep meetings among Patriots coaches and staff in the upper reaches of Gillette Stadium. Or some eureka moment during film study at 4 a.m. Or how the game plan has been crafted not just over the last couple weeks but since the day Brady left Foxborough for Tampa last year.
But if those things happened, no one within the walls at 1 Patriot Place is willing to admit it. There is stress in that building -- but there always is. And while it seems to have heightened this week, it's not just because of the homecoming of the greatest player in franchise history, but also because the Patriots are 1-2 and just fell flat on their faces against the New Orleans Saints.
"We're not good enough to get lost [in what's] ahead of us, so we better focus in on what we need to do and watch them (the Buccaneers) from an X's-and-O's standpoint," said safety Devin McCourty immediately following last week's game. "Watch them as an offense, defense, special teams and lock in on that. We can't worry about anything else."
Said 14th-year vet Matt Slater: "A lot of the conversation this week is going to be about Thomas' return, and to an extent, it should be. He should be celebrated. But for us, who are competing on Sunday, it should be about our preparation, it should be about focus, and it should be about going out and playing good, winning football, regardless of who we're playing this week."
Playing good, winning football -- as Slater termed it -- has been an elusive goal for the team to this point in the season.
"I think Coach (Bill Belichick) said it best: We definitely have good players, but we just didn't play like a good team," receiver Jakobi Meyers told us mid-week.
Meyers is right. There are plenty of numbers the coaching staff could point to as evidence of progress, including top-five rankings in scoring defense, passing defense and overall defense, and the NFL's 10th-best third-down conversion rate (44.7%) on offense. But there are also inexcusable, game-altering errors, like running back Damien Harris' crucial fumble in Week 1's loss to Miami -- and, more damning, a slew of mental mistakes.
A prime example came last Sunday against the Saints. After a Marquez Callaway touchdown catch put New Orleans up 14-0, shortly before halftime, the Patriots answered with a nice two-minute drive, with rookie QB Mac Jones firing completions of 31, 13 and 7 yards to put the team on the edge of the red zone. A touchdown would have been huge. Instead, on fourth-and-1 from the Saints' 22-yard line, Hunter Henry was whistled for a false start, although it looked like it could have been called on any one of five players. And the Pats had to settle for a field goal.
Miscues like those are very un-Patriot-like -- and of the kind that this group hasn't proven to be good enough to overcome.
"This is a new team," said McCourty. "What guys and teams have done in the past, it really makes no difference to this team because those guys that were doing those things, they're not here playing right now. It's who we are right now. It's what we put out there."
The lackluster results aren't just a short-term problem. Dating back to Dec. 1, 2019 (with Brady still at QB), the Pats are 10-15 -- and three of those wins came against the Jets.
"This is not who we want to be," one veteran Patriots player told me this week. "It's embarrassing, but what was it (Bill) Parcells said? You are what your record says you are? Can't argue with it, at least not right now."
While the Patriots look to fix what ails them, they have to deal with the never-ending noise about Brady's return. It has already worn thin in the locker room, though not because of any animosity for their former QB. But given New England's struggles, being reminded that Brady is still playing at a high level, having just won a championship in his new home, with his supporting cast perhaps performing even better this year, would be understandably irksome. Add that to the verbal barbs from both Brady's father and trainer, and there is a real sense that the Buccaneers quarterback is out for blood, once again aiming to prove someone -- in this case, presumably Belichick -- wrong.
"I don't know what happened between Coach and Tom," said one player from the Patriots' offense. "Frankly, I don't care. I know he wants to smash us, but having played with him, I know he wants to smash every team."
"Is it personal? Maybe," said another former teammate of Brady's who is still in Foxborough. "But I don't think that will make him prepare harder. I don't think it impacts us, either. We just have to play well and do it for all 60 minutes, in all three phases, not the bits and pieces we've put out there so far. Because that hasn't been remotely good enough for what we expect."
Sounds simple -- but it hasn't proven to be so far. Considering the opponent, it may continue to be a challenge this week.