Fourth quarter: McCourty fumbles a kick, loses the ball deep in New England territory and sets the Patriots up for a late loss.
After games: Coach Bill Belichick praises McCourty and tells him he's a solid part of the defense, no matter what the critics say (a rare move for Belichick).
During games: Patriots fans unleash the vitriol on McCourty, who they know so well not only because of his mishaps and flag-drawing on defense, but also because it's his name and number filling the screen as he tries to defend the ball by never looking at it.
It's a tired story, seven games into this season, that the Patriots' defense can't defend, that the offense lets games get away late and that this group has to do much better if it thinks it's better than what should have been an easy AFC East title and then some.
But the heavy criticism will always be about the New England secondary.
It stunk last season, and it stinks this year.
It gives up oodles of yardage, collects buckets of penalty flags and not only can't play well but also looks positively jayvee doing it. Say what you will about the timely turnovers and keeping points off the board, but this group is bad — and it's led by McCourty.
Sure, McCourty was a champ on Sunday, playing in a different position as the already-subpar group had to make up for not having its usual players in the right spots. But McCourty consistently fails to live up to expectations and potential, and the serviceable effort he puts out each week is not enough to make his spot on the team — or the fellow players he leads — respectable.
McCourty can intercept. McCourty can run the length of the field with good wide receivers. McCourty can break up passes. McCourty looked just great at safety for much of Sunday's game.
But McCourty cannot do all of this at once. Much like his performance Sunday, where he saved the team with his kick-return touchdown only to just about spoil the entire afternoon's effort with a horrific fumble, McCourty is either all there or not there at all.
And it's the scourge of this all-or-nothing approach — which infects not only McCourty but also the entire New England secondary and sometimes the Patriots as a whole — that is what has made the Patriots so frustrating to follow or figure out this year.
Praise Tom Brady for being a great quarterback, but understand that for every surgical, minute-and-a-half drive to save the game like he did on Sunday, he's put together a three-and-out in the fourth quarter. Praise the defense for timely interceptions and forced fumbles, but know that every Rob Ninkovich crush has an equal huge-yard pass interference call as its counterpart. Praise the balanced offense, running game and ability to steamroll opponents, but realize that in close games — especially in the second half — the Patriots can't score at the same clip.
McCourty should not be exorcised for the faults of his whole team, or even the entire secondary. But as Patriots fans tuck in their chip bowls for another season of watching McCourty's back flash in their face as a long-ball completion goes over his head, he's an easy scapegoat. He is what the Patriots have become, leaving behind years of disciplined execution.
As beautiful as the big moments are, it's consistency and methodical production that ensure success, and that New England needs badly.
The all is great.
The nothing cuts deep.
Somewhere in the middle lie the wins.
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