Saints make Pats' D face harsh reality

NEW ORLEANS -- Nose tackle Vince Wilfork is an optimist and believes the New England Patriots' defense can turn things around in time to salvage their playoff and Super Bowl hopes. Yet he's also a realist as to the current makeup of the unit.

Asked if it's fair to say this defense isn't ready for prime time after being gashed by the Colts (35 points) and Saints (38 points) in two of the last three weeks, the defensive captain pulled no punches.

"We had two games where they were big-time games and we didn't execute," he said. "However you look into it, you look into it. It is what it is."

There is really no other way to view it: This defense hasn't delivered on the biggest regular-season stage, the games that quarterback Tom Brady previously said give a team a true measure of where it stands.

Given those performances, it's fair to ask the question: Can the Patriots accomplish their ultimate goal -- winning a Super Bowl -- with this unit?

Monday night's debacle in New Orleans -- in which the defense gave up eight plays of 20 yards or more and turned in perhaps the most embarrassing play in Bill Belichick's 10-year tenure on Devery Henderson's second-quarter 75-yard touchdown catch -- reinforced what Belichick was thinking Nov. 15 when he went for it on fourth-and-2 against the Colts.

This defense doesn't put up enough resistance against top teams.

Not that it should all fall on the players. This is the defense that Belichick himself built, after all.

So when oft-targeted second-year cornerback Jonathan Wilhite is beaten for a 38-yard touchdown pass, and then is in coverage on a backbreaking 68-yard reception in the third quarter, some of that has to fall at Belichick's feet.

"They don't have Richard Seymour any more, they don't the Vrabels, the Bruschis, the Harrisons, so it's not the same defense you guys have seen," Saints tight end Jeremy Shockey said.

What was clear listening to some Saints players talk is that there is little to fear on this Patriots defense. Running back Mike Bell said the main thing that stood out to him was how sturdy they were in their 3-4 alignment, and that creating space to run would be difficult. That alone might help the Patriots win the AFC East and clinch a playoff berth, but they'll need much more than that if they are to contend for the Super Bowl against such high-powered offenses as the Saints and Colts.

No question, the Saints are operating at an extremely high level, and part of Monday night's destruction was simply the result of their excellence. Quarterback Drew Brees doesn't go 18-of-23 for 371 yards with five touchdowns and no interceptions solely because of blown coverages and missed assignments that Belichick -- who opened his postgame remarks by giving the Saints credit -- described as "enormous."

Safety Brandon McGowan seemed to put it best when he said, "They came to play and obviously we just came to watch."

For too much of the night, what defenders were watching was the back of Saints jerseys. The explosive Saints got it going early, Brees hitting Henderson for 33 yards with cornerback Leigh Bodden in coverage on the game's first play.

But nothing was worse than Henderson's 75-yard score. The Patriots had five defensive backs on the field when Henderson caught the ball 24 yards downfield before essentially walking the final 51 for the score.

"It was a miscommunication, everyone wasn't on the same page, and that's my responsibility," said linebacker Jerod Mayo, who was one of several players holding himself accountable in an honest postgame locker room. "We weren't on that play, or for the whole night. We just blew it. It's very embarrassing any time you lose like this."

Wilfork believes the Patriots have the leadership to overcome their big-game defensive woes, but knows "it doesn't get any easier."

The only thing easy about Monday night was how the Saints sliced through the Patriots' defense.

"Some plays we gave up out there, I could have completed the ball, or I could have run the ball," Wilfork said.

It was that bad.

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPN Boston. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.