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Are the Patriots still THE Patriots?

As the Chiefs get ready to face Tom Brady and the New England Patriots, it might not mean what it's always meant for the last 15 years.

Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

Tom Brady and the New England Patriots. The mention of such an opponent would normally signal an automatic loss for most fan bases. That's the respect/fear generated when facing a team that is 160-51 since 2001.

Yep, that's right. Bill Belichick would have to lose the next 103 games in a row -- one hundred and three -- to fall to a .500 record in his tenure with the New England Patriots. Since 2001, the Patriots have averaged 3.6 losses every year. That's not even one loss per month. You expect to lose to the Patriots because everybody loses to the Patriots. More than anything, that is the Patriot Way.

Tom Brady is, of course, responsible for much of that success. The Patriots starting quarterback is now 37 years old and a shoe-in for enshrinement in Canton five years to the day after he decides to hang it up. As long as Brady is under center, the Patriots are going to win. Until they won't. Some teams might beat them, but it won't be expected. Not until Brady decides enough is enough.

How close to the end?

Tom Brady's best is obviously behind him. Five Super Bowl appearances. Three rings. There's little left to achieve for the future Hall of Famer. But even as recently as a month ago, many NFL analysts had the Patriots pegged as a potential favorite for the AFC title, with the Denver Broncos as the other prime contender. Then came the regular season.

Since the 2014 season began, something has been off. Tom Brady has yet to throw an interception, and his team is 2-1 after this weekend's win over the Oakland Raiders. But the Patriots hardly feel like the Patriots. Their win over the Raiders was too close for comfort, as Oakland stayed in it until Vince Wilfork's interception (yep!) put things away. Former Patriots quarterback Matt Cassel threw four interceptions in the Pats win over the Minnesota Vikings in Week 2, so the Patriots simply had to open a few gifts to win that game.

The main evidence, however, was the season opening carcass served up against the Miami Dolphins. In a division that was supposed to be the annual Patriots plus also-rans, the Dolphins put up 33 points and forced Tom Brady to look miserable. His final line: 29 of 56 (51.8 percent) for 249 yards and one touchdown. Do the math and that's a miserable 4.4 yards per pass attempt. That's Gabbertian territory there, folks.

The question needs to be asked. Is this the end? Are we witnessing, week after week, the demise of one of the greatest of all-time? It has to happen at some point, and a quarterback's 37th year of life is a pretty reasonable time to believe it could happen. Brady is solid. Brady is steady. Brady is not, however, Brady.

Here's a look at the trend, a downward one at that. Presenting the last four years o' Brady:

Year Comp. % TD INT Yds/Comp. Yds/Game QB Rating
2011 65.6 39 12 13.1 327 105.6
2012 63.0 34 8 12.0 302 98.7
2013 60.5 25 11 11.4 271 87.3
2014 58.8 3 0 9.4 210 82.9

Pick your category and you see the same. It's a downturn.

Tom knows it

The good news for Patriots fans is that Brady is well aware of the problem.

"I don't think anybody has really found their stride this year," said Brady on WEEI's Dennis & Callahan. "I don't know who you can point to on offense and say, 'Wow, they're really clicking.'"

Eight seasons have passed since the Patriots were not ranked in the NFL's top ten offenses in total yardage. So far, they're 27th. Last year, they were seventh. The previous year? They led the league. It's been a steep drop, and such drastic changes tend to draw some attention. For Brady, the attention falls squarely on himself, yet he's also not afraid to point to those around him. He's earned the credibility at this point.

"It's not one person," said Brady. "It's not not singling any person out to say, 'Wow, if this person were out, or if this person were in.' I mean, if we had 11 people on the field that were producing like Julian Edelman, we'd have a pretty good offense. We've got one guy."

Up until now, the Patriots have always had their one guy. And that was enough to make the entire unit shine brightly around him. It's hard to say whether or not the Pats can turn things around, but there's a bit more at stake for the Patriots as they face the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 4. It'll either be the upturn they need to get the offense back on track, or it will be further proof that the sun is setting on one of the greats.