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Patriots Buckle in Early Pressure

Nobody had to tell Bill Belichick there would be days like this. Look at his face, locked into perpetual grimace even in the best of times. Look at his former coordinators, Charlie Weis and Romeo Crennel, off performing minor miracles across the upper Midwest.

Belichick knew. You break up the best coaching staff of the 21st century, you lose some key defenders, you get hit with a hellacious early-season schedule, it’s only a matter of time before you grouse during a postgame news conference, “Do you think we’re going to win any more games playing like this?”

The New England Patriots lost for the first time in the 2005 season, and perhaps the only thing unusual about it was the date: Sept. 18, a.k.a. NFL Week 2, a little early by recent Patriot standards.

Carolina, which nearly beat New England in the Super Bowl two years back, completed the deal this time around, winning, 27-17, with the kind of just-enough performance the Patriots mastered during their dynasty years.

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Is the dynasty over?

Consider it wobbling. After working harder than anticipated to dispatch the Oakland Raiders in Week 1 and falling to 1-1 at Carolina, the Patriots face a monthlong gantlet against four consecutive 2004 playoff teams: at Pittsburgh next Sunday followed by a home game against San Diego, then on the road against Atlanta and Denver.

Will the two-time defending Super Bowl champions be above .500 entering their Oct. 23 open date?

It is no sure bet.

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Patriot fans will no doubt note that on the same day their team lost in Charlotte, Crennel’s Cleveland Browns beat Brett Favre and the Packers in Green Bay, 26-24 -- and did so with Trent Dilfer, previously 0 for 8 in Green Bay, passing for 336 yards and three touchdowns.

And the previous day, Weis watched his Notre Dame squad lose in overtime to Michigan State after returning to the top 10 with a 2-0 start.

The dynasty spinoffs are doing surprisingly well. As for the original, well, winning at Carolina was always going to be a tough proposition, especially so when the running game shuts down and Tom Brady loses the football twice under relentless defensive pressure.

“We can’t play like this,” Belichick told reporters afterward. “We have to play better. We have to coach better. This won’t be good enough ... against anyone we play.” On the bright side, things could be worse.

Take for example the Minnesota Vikings, who opened the season against Tampa Bay and Cincinnati -- combined 2004 record: 13-19 -- and are now 0-2 with Daunte Culpepper averaging four interceptions a game.

Five of Culpepper’s passes were intercepted in a 37-8 loss to the Bengals, which was remarkable for at least four reasons:

* 1. Cincinnati cornerback Deltha O’Neal had three of those interceptions. Of all the players suited up at Paul Brown Stadium, only Viking Travis Taylor, with seven receptions, caught more of Culpepper’s passes.

* 2. The Vikings committed seven turnovers. The last time the Bengals had seven takeaways in a game, in 1983, they were coached by Forrest Gregg and quarterbacked by Ken Anderson.

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* 3. After picking off Culpepper five times and recovering a couple of fumbles, the Bengals are 2-0.

* 4. The Bengals are 2-0!

Cincinnati’s rubbing undefeated elbows with Pittsburgh and Indianapolis is a very weird sight, but with Carson Palmer passing for 337 yards and three touchdowns against the Vikings and the Bengals facing games next against Chicago and Houston, Cincinnati stands a decent chance of standing 4-0 come October.

Almost as weird are some of the teams checking in at 0-2: Minnesota, which evidently has yet to come to grips with the fact deep-to-Randy-Moss is no longer an option; Green Bay, which lost to Cleveland while Brett Favre was becoming the third NFL quarterback to pass for 50,000 career yards; Baltimore, which found Anthony Wright to be no improvement over Kyle Boller in a 25-10 loss at Tennessee; and San Diego, which lost for the 10th time in its last 11 trips to Denver, 20-17.

The Chargers entered this season as consensus Team Most Likely To Backslide From 12-4, but they are 0-2 even before the grit of their first-place schedule kicks in, with LaDainian Tomlinson netting only 124 yards in those losses. Tomlinson scored twice against the Broncos to become the first NFL player to rush for at least one touchdown in 14 consecutive games, but didn’t do much after the Chargers led, 14-3.

Indianapolis and Pittsburgh remained unbeaten, although today, only the Steelers are feeling really good about it.

Pittsburgh romped in Houston, 27-7, to extend its regular-season winning streak to 16 games, equaling the third-longest in league history. Indianapolis, meanwhile, trailed the Jacksonville Jaguars, 3-0, in the fourth quarter, leading many fans checking the score on their cell phones to wonder if the game had been secretly moved to New England.

No, the Colts were actually spinning their wheels at home before Ran Carthon scored on a six-yard run and Mike Vanderjagt added a 41-yard field goal to hold off the Jaguars, 10-3.

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In a couple of hyped reunions, the San Francisco 49ers (again) rued the day they let Terrell Owens get away in a 42-3 loss at Philadelphia and the St. Louis Rams felt better about things at the quarterback position by defeating Kurt Warner’s Arizona Cardinals, 17-12.

In their first meeting since T.O. (Tempestuous One) bolted for the Eagles, the 49ers watched Owens get away again ... and again ... for touchdown receptions covering 68 and 42 yards and Donovan McNabb passed for a career-high five touchdowns.

Worth noting: McNabb passed for those touchdowns, and 342 total yards, with a bruised chest. And that 68-yard strike to Owens came in the first minute, on the third play from scrimmage.

Warner lost for the second time in as many weeks to teams that sent him packing, first the New York Giants, then the Rams, by a combined score of 59-31.

But buck up, Cardinal fans. Warner’s list of former NFL teams stops at two. At least for the time being.


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