FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- All along, the question has been whether the Tom Brady-led offense could carry the New England Patriots to their ultimate goal. It was understood that the defense was a work in progress, but the high-powered offense was supposed to be the least of the team's worries.
In Sunday's surprising 24-20 loss to the New York Giants, Pats quarterback Tom Brady didn't look like Tom Brady. His trademark decision-making and accuracy were nowhere to be found for long stretches of the action. Unexpectedly, the Patriots' much-maligned defense kept them in the game for the first three quarters until Brady finally found his groove. But then another leak sprung on the ship, with the D imploding in the fourth quarter.
The turn of events reflects how the Patriots -- who fell to 5-3 and into a three-way tie atop the AFC East standings -- are a disjointed team right now. They have flashes of excellence on offense and defense, but haven't put it all together in recent weeks. Not to be overlooked is their special-teams play, which continues to let them down.
The offensive struggles are most surprising. The Patriots, who had scored 30-plus points in 13 straight games (one shy of the NFL record), have now been held to 20 or fewer points in three straight games for the first time since 2003.
"We're not playing the way we're capable, so we'll try to figure out the reasons why," a dejected Brady said. "We keep practicing; we keep battling out there. There's a lot of fight in the guys. We just didn't finish the way we would have hoped that it would finish."
Much like Super Bowl XLII, Brady was pressured by the Giants' powerful defensive line and couldn't get into a rhythm until late in the fourth quarter. He finished 28-of-49 for 342 yards, with two touchdowns, two interceptions and one lost fumble, the high yardage not truly reflective of how much he struggled at times.
The turnovers obviously hurt, with Brady's first interception coming on a tipped ball in the second quarter. But it was his second pick that seems to better reflect why the offense has slipped in recent weeks.
On the third-quarter play, Brady had receiver Chad Ochocinco open in front of the Patriots' bench, but instead fired up the seam to tight end Rob Gronkowski. The throw was undercut by safety Deon Grant. By now, it's clear that Brady-to-Ochocinco isn't clicking, and this looked like a clear-cut example of it. Brady just doesn't trust Ochocinco enough at this point.
"We're working at it. We've only played together for eight games," Brady said. "We're just going to keep working at it. We've got no other choice but just to keep working at it."
Brady targeted Ochocinco five times Sunday, and the veteran receiver -- who, halfway through the season, has nine receptions and one big drop in Buffalo -- finished without a catch. Fox television cameras showed the two talking on the sideline after one series, the frustration evident on Brady's face.
With receiver Deion Branch's production fluctuating on a week-to-week basis, Ochocinco's failure to emerge has left Brady overly reliant on two players: receiver Wes Welker and Gronkowski. They were targeted on 25 of Brady's 49 pass attempts. Much like in Super Bowl XLII, the Patriots couldn't get a consistent running game going Sunday, which made them predictable.
The way Giants defenders saw it, they made Brady uncomfortable by disguising their intentions before the snap, which got him out of his comfort zone. In turn, that might have led to Brady locking in more on his top trusted targets, Welker and Gronkowski.
"He looked like he was a little bit uncomfortable with some of his reads," said Giants defensive lineman Justin Tuck, who also had harassed Brady in Super Bowl XLII. "He took his time at the line of scrimmage, and that's when you know you've given him some things that maybe he hasn't done before, or he's confused a little bit about.
"He does a great job, maybe the best in the league, of looking at a defense and knowing what a weakness is and exploiting it. I think we did a good job of disguising. Obviously we're not going to be able to stop them, but I felt as if we slowed them down."
Welker didn't necessarily agree that the Giants did anything out of the ordinary. Instead, he looked within the Patriots' own locker room and said "it was just a matter of our execution and us turning the ball over."
In addition to the two interceptions and the lost Brady fumble, Julian Edelman lost a fumble on a punt return, making Sunday's the third game this season in which the team has had at least four giveaways. That's a first for the Patriots under Bill Belichick; the last time they had three games with at least four turnovers in a season was in 1999.
Brady attempted to put a positive spin on things, noting that effort isn't the issue and that there is no quit among his teammates, which is all true. Had Eli Manning not led a game-winning 80-yard touchdown drive late in the fourth quarter, the Patriots' offense would have been lauded for its own late-game magic.
But that's not the way it unfolded.
"It's just our execution. We're going to keep battling, and we have half the season to go," Brady said. "We'll see what our team is made of this week."
Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.