Thumbs up or down on McCourty?

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Devin McCourty wears several hats for the New England Patriots -- cornerback, kickoff returner, vice man on the punt team, and captain among them.

Now we can add another: Lightning rod.

That happened fast. It seems like yesterday that McCourty, the team's 2010 first-round draft choice, was representing the AFC in the Pro Bowl after an impressive rookie season that included seven interceptions. McCourty showed a lot of promise that year and quickly made believers out of those disappointed that the club didn't draft talented but troubled receiver Dez Bryant instead.

Then came a largely forgettable 2011 campaign, which included a late-season move to safety in sub packages.

And now this.

After the Patriots fell to 1-2 with a gut-wrenching, flag-filled, last-second loss to the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday, blame was assigned by many, and McCourty was often near the top of the list. He was blistered in some circles for two costly late-game miscues, among other things, while others -- focusing more on his complete body of work -- were a bit kinder.

The difference of opinion was striking and seems to sum up McCourty's first two-plus years with the Patriots -- all over the map. There have been flashes of excellence, but also struggles that make one wonder whether he's headed down the same path as some of the team's recent high draft picks in the secondary who haven't panned out (Brandon Meriweather, Darius Butler, Terrence Wheatley) or aren't emerging as quickly as hoped (Ras-I Dowling).

McCourty, one of the most stand-up guys in the locker room when it comes to answering questions from reporters in good times and bad, hears the criticism. He knows he's a lightning rod of sorts.

"You don't listen to it," he explained. "[Cornerbacks] Coach [Josh] Boyer, is always saying to just listen to what we're teaching you and keep doing the things we're asking you to do, and everything will fall into place and work out."

Outside of a failed tackle attempt on Ravens tight end Dennis Pitta's catch-and-run touchdown, things looked pretty good for McCourty (5-foot-10, 195) through three quarters last Sunday.

Seeing him hang with speedy receiver Torrey Smith down the right sideline at the end of the first quarter -- not falling for a double move -- confirmed that he is still running well and the instincts remain intact. Drawing a holding penalty against receiver Anquan Boldin while defending the run reinforced that the strength and physicality is still there. And he remains a sound tackler, arguably one of the better cornerbacks in the NFL in that area.

If only the game were three quarters. Then we might be writing that the 2010 version of McCourty had officially made his return.

Instead, McCourty unraveled in the fourth quarter (dropped interception, pass interference penalty, 24-yard reception for Jacoby Jones with him in coverage on final drive), and the lightning rod was sparked.

Told that some analysts viewed it as one of his best games in recent memory, while others pointed to his late-game failings as the primary reason for the loss, McCourty didn't flinch.

"Both opinions are probably right," he said. "There were some good things, there were some bad things. Of course at the end of the game, I want to play better. There's no question of that."

McCourty insists confidence isn't an issue for him, and while he might not have the full support of fans like he did in his rookie Pro Bowl campaign, he has the backing of the only person that truly matters -- head coach Bill Belichick.

Asked if he still views McCourty as an ascending player who is improving on a regular basis, Belichick said, "Yeah, Devin works hard, he improves. He tries to improve on everything you tell him to do."

McCourty said it's too early to say if this year will look more like 2010 or 2011 for him. He's encouraged by some things, but at the same time, he sees the same inconsistency everyone else does.

"Not enough good things," he said. "It's just building. It's a process. I think I've improved on some things, and like any other player there are some things I have to work on. My biggest thing is trying to be highly critical of myself and try to correct things each day in practice and try to turn it over into games on Sunday."

As for this Sunday, McCourty figures to be part of one of the crucial matchups against the Bills, locked up against Buffalo's top receiver, Stevie Johnson (13 catches, 172 yards, 3 TDs). The Bills like to spread the field and sling it, with Johnson a lethal weapon on the outside.

"He's tough to defend. He does some different things, especially at the line of scrimmage, that you don't see every week from a receiver," McCourty said.

It's a major test for the Patriots' new lightning rod, who at times has looked like the 2010 Pro Bowler and other times has reverted more to the 2011 cornerback who struggled.

Which one is it going to be?