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How long with fans and ownership tolerate the Patriots being a middle-of-the-pack team?

Mike Florio and Peter King preview an AFC showdown between the Steelers and Patriots and see plenty of cause for alarm after New England's rough Week 1 loss.

After a 2021 season that started slowly, improved dramatically, and then imploded in a 30-point postseason loss to the Bills, the Patriots seem ordinary, at best. How long can coach Bill Belichick survive ordinary?

It’s just a question, not a prediction or an assessment that the heat on his seat may be or could be or ever will be increasing. Yes, owner Bob Kraft openly lamented in March the fact that the Patriots haven’t won a playoff game in three years. That’s a far cry, however, from ownership even beginning to contemplate life without Belichick, the greatest NFL coach of all time.

The fans, on the other hand, may be at least pondering the possibilities of what comes next, and when. Local TV ratings were down sharply for Week One, in comparison to last year’s average. They’ve been spoiled by two decades of consistent contention. Now, the Pats are slipping back toward the pack. Forget about fending off the Bills; they suddenly can’t compete with the Dolphins.

The Patriots typically get better as the season unfolds. It’s been one of the harsh realities of the past decade, in which labor-deal practice adjustments have given Belichick fewer opportunities to get his team fully up to speed before Week One. But, frankly, other teams thrive out of the gates. At some point, it’s fair to ask why Belichick hasn’t pivoted toward preparing his team in a way that allows it to do better in the first 4-6 weeks of the season?

And, yes, it worked for most the decade. Until it didn’t. Until Tom Brady left. Brady’s success in Tampa has since become the ultimate bright-line comparison between quarterback and coach. Belichick, a master of finding a way to use his coaching skills to win close games, now has a team that may have a hard time keeping it close.

In the last two games that counted, the Patriots have been outscored 67-24. By two AFC East rivals, the Bills and Dolphins.

Despite the lingering questions about the quality and the coaching of the offense, the Patriots are slight favorites at Pittsburgh today. Maybe the oddsmakers know something the rest of us don’t. Maybe the Patriots turn things around today, with those 2-3 plays that went Miami’s way last week going New England’s way this week.

Or maybe the halcyon days are truly done for the Patriots. Maybe it was more Brady than Belichick. Maybe the Patriots, who endured the inevitable departure of their quarterback, will begin to consider the inevitable departure of their coach.

It’s a question I’ve posed this week in various communications with people around the league. Some think Belichick would retire before he’d ever be asked to leave. (Even if he’s asked to leave, it possibly would be sold as a retirement.) At least one opined that Kraft would never fire Belichick because Belichick “knows too much.”

Regardless, there’s currently a weird vibe coming from the entire team. Does it come from a post-Josh McDaniels approach that consists of entrusting the offense to a pair of former Patriots assistants who weren’t offensive coaches turned head coaches turned former head coaches turned Patriots assistants who are now offensive coaches? Does it trace to the inability of Belichick to fire his sons if they just aren’t good enough and, as a result, any and every other assistant on the staff? Does it trace to the fact that Bill Belichick the coach can no longer overcome the failures of Bill Belichick the de facto G.M.?

Whatever the cause, the effect is something that seems decidedly un-Patriotic. A loss today would make the Patriots 0-2 for the first time since 2001. While that team turned it around and won the franchise’s first Super Bowl, there’s no Tom Brady lurking on the depth chart, waiting for his chance to take over the league.

Many call the NFL a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately? league. More accurately, it’s what-are-you-doing-for-me-right-now-and-what-can-I-expect-you-to-do-for-me-tomorrow? That’s the standard Belichick always applies to his players. At what point will it be applied to him?