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Column: Defense was a disaster, but Belichick has long game in mind

(Greg M. Cooper/USA TODAY Sports)

FOXBOROUGH — They came, all 65,878 of them, in full throat ready for the crowning of the Super Bowl champions. And for a while, it looked like they were going to get the party they came prepared for.

Instead, they left (many of them early) some three-plus hours later feeling like they have been run over by a red, gold and white bus in the shape of the Kansas City Chiefs’ arrowhead.

That’s what happens when, after holding a 17-7 lead with the ball late in the second quarter, you’re outscored 35-10 the rest of the evening on the way to a 42-27 home loss. By the time the carnage was over, the Patriots gave up the most points (42) and yards (537) ever surrendered by a Bill Belichick-coached Patriots team.

How the heck did this team, the one with dreams of 19-0 dancing around them and heavy favorites to win a sixth Super Bowl, end up with egg on their face in the home opener on national television?

Let us count the ways.

We’re not, however, going to talk much about the offense. Sorry, but if you put up 27 points in the first three quarters at home, you should win a vast majority of the time. You certainly shouldn’t be having “it handed to us on our own field,” as Tom Brady put it after the game.

Yes, the offensive side of the ball is a work in progress, which we figured would be the case in the wake of Julian Edelman's injury. But going 3-for-6 in the red zone is not good enough, and neither is needing 2 yards or less three times to sustain drives and failing. And the same-old, same-old reared its ugly head (right out of Rex Ryan’s Jets playbook) when the Chiefs played coverage and clogged the middle of the field, and the Patriots couldn’t run the ball well enough — 30 carries for 107 yards (3.6 average) by their running backs — to make the defense respect the run and open up passing lanes for Brady. And offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels didn’t exactly cover himself in glory in this one.

So there’s plenty on the offense’s plate.

But this one was, in good measure, on the defense. And there’s absolutely no excuse why that unit had the worst single-game performance since Belichick became Patriots coach.

Let’s just start with the Chiefs’ drive before halftime, because it was a microcosm of what killed the Patriots on Thursday night: it was a death by a thousand self-inflicted paper cuts.

After a holding penalty by the Chiefs backed them up to their own 4-yard line, outside linebacker Cassius Marsh, who had practiced with the team for all of four days after being acquired in a trade with the Seahawks, failed to contain a run by Kareem Hunt (newcomer Stephon Gilmore was also nowhere to be seen on his side, and linebacker Kyle Van Noy was completely rubbed out) for 7 yards.

On second down, no one had receiver Albert Wilson (Marsh was the closest in “coverage,” if you can call it that), and that play went for 8 yards and a first down.

Travis Kelce made a terrific catch against solid coverage by Devin McCourty for 14 yards, and then Eric Rowe allowed Wilson to have any easy reception for 13 yards. And he was able to step out of bounds without much resistance for another first down.

On the next play, the Patriots three-man rush got all out of sorts and allowed what was likely one of their top gameplan points: don’t let Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith out of the pocket. That was another 7 yards. An incompletion, thanks to good coverage by Gilmore, set up third-and-3.

The Patriots had all they wanted there. Deatrich Wise brought pressure and hit Smith as he threw. Patrick Chung was in the throwing lane and got his hands on the pass. The problem was the ball deflected right to Tyreek Hill for a first down at the New England 34-yard line with 49 seconds left.

Patriots would face another third down -- this one with 5 yards to go -- with 37 seconds remaining. With little pressure from a three-man rush with Dont’a Hightower spying Smith, he was able to hold the ball and find Hill for 8 yards and another jaunt out of bounds to stop the clock. (Remember when the Patriots used to play the perimeter in those situations and keep the clock running?)

A Malcolm Butler pass interference penalty on a poorly thrown ball gave the Chiefs a first down at the 1-yard line, but McCourty make a huge tackle for a 2-yard loss as the Chiefs took their second timeout with 17 seconds remaining.

Jordan Richards, who is normally a safety (and not a very good one) and playing linebacker for only the second week, took a couple of false steps and then lost Hunt, as he easily scored from 3 yards out with 13 seconds remaining.

The drive: 12 plays, 92 yards, 2:34 (clock manager extraordinaire Andy Reid only had to use two of his three timeouts on the drive). Score: Patriots 17, Chiefs 14.

New England was still leading, but the game was on that point, and the Chiefs received a jolt of confidence that propelled them into the second half.

That’s the best the Patriots could do? They had six weeks to get ready for that game. They had time to shuffle players in and out of the lineup if they didn’t think they had the right personnel. Instead, they come up with a guy (Marsh) who was on Pacific Coast time last week playing a crucial spot, and another in Richards who is a borderline NFL player. Unlike the offense, the defensive side of the ball didn’t have any injuries (until Hightower left in the second half) that caused some monumental need to shuffle personnel.

But on the field, the defense looked like they had never played together. Maybe they didn’t enough. Alan Branch missed a portion of training camp. Hightower never practiced. I don’t know what the excuse could be for the secondary, but Gilmore looked like he had yet to be indoctrinated into the Patriot Way because he was often soft on the edge. The Patriots looked like they had no plan at linebacker because with Hightower now on the edge, Van Noy was often roadkill on the second level and Richards was completely lost. That’s a problem when the middle of your defense resembles a donut. Where was Elandon Roberts? Where was David Harris? Where was anybody to put up a fight?

This wasn’t much of one because a Chiefs offense that had one drive of 90 yards last season, had three against the Patriots.

Yes, it was that bad.

Maybe Brady was onto to something when he said after the game: “We just have to be a lot better in a lot of areas, starting with our attitude and our competitiveness. … I just think we need to have more urgency and go out there and perform a lot better. That is a winning attitude and a championship attitude that you need to bring every day.”

I mentioned this at one point in training camp, but didn’t think much of it because I hadn't been around every day in a few years, and these are the Patriots. But from NFL training camps that I’ve been around over the years, the one the Patriots completed this summer was distinctly lacking in intensity outside of the second practice against the Texans in West Virginia.

After what happened last night, you can bet that’s not going to be an issue going forward. The Patriots got smacked in the face and around by a stark dose of reality: they aren’t the champs anymore. In fact, they’ll be tied for last place in the AFC East after this weekend.

But, as bad as this loss was, especially for the defense, no one should go off the deep end. How many times have we seen the Patriots have major issues and puzzling losses in the first month of the season (hello 41-14 blowout to these Chiefs in Week 4 in 2014), but they get it figured out and are rolling come November and December (those same ’14 Patriots went on to win the Super Bowl).

The players that look lost and green now (Marsh, Richards, Gilmore, the young players on the defensive line) have been put in those spots because Belichick thinks they’ll be world beaters on Feb. 4 in Minneapolis, not Sept. 7 in Foxborough.

This one was tough to watch, but there are still 15 games left in this season. Belichick knows what he’s doing.