FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – As the Indianapolis Colts mounted drive after drive Monday night, with seven of the first eight resulting in points, one could only read the expression on coach Bill Belichick’s face, and it was hardly inscrutable.

Halfway through the season, the New England Patriots’ grand quest for a record third consecutive Super Bowl title is over and, though he would never say so publicly, Belichick knows it.

His already decimated secondary was further disassembled Thursday when the club placed cornerback Duane Starks on injured reserve with a severe shoulder problem. Starks is the fourth defensive back this year whose season has been abruptly ended by injury. Strong safety Rodney Harrison, the heart and soul of the club, was finished after three games with knee surgery. Cornerback Ty Poole: gone with ankle damage. Young safety Guss Scott: out with a knee injury. And there are several key defensive players, not on injured reserve, who have lost time because of strains and sprains.

This is a Patriots team that simply has lost too many valuable bodies, a fact even quarterback Tom Brady reluctantly admits has led to this 4-4 deterioration.

“We’ve established something over the last four or five years about what it means to be a Patriot,” he told reporters in a news briefing earlier this week. “As a team, we have to communicate to some of the younger guys, some of the guys who haven’t been there, what that really means, and the commitment it takes to reach that next level. We are still coming together.”

The run defense has not been as good with inside linebacker Tedy Bruschi missing the first six games and defensive end Richard Seymour hobbling around on one and a half legs much of the season. But it would still be passable enough to get deep into the playoffs if the pass defense wasn’t in a shambles. The symbiotic relationship between the pass rush and the secondary has broken down. Without pressure on opposing quarterbacks, the window of opportunity is open longer for receivers against the secondary. It will be another mix and match for New England today at Dolphins Stadium.

Belichick would like to start Randall Gay and Asante Samuel at cornerback, Eugene Wilson at free safety and James Sanders at strong safety. But who knows who will be fit and who won’t be? Seventeen Patriots are on the injury report, seven on defense. Gay is listed as questionable with an ankle injury. Nickel back Ellis Hobbs has a deep thigh bruise and is questionable.

Against this defense, Dolphins coach Nick Saban and offensive coordinator Scott Linehan appear to have a major edge. But quarterback Gus Frerotte is not Peyton Manning, who humiliated the Patriots secondary for 321 yards. He is, instead, a 52.4 percent passer whose ninth interception five days ago left thousands of fans demanding his benching.

Two backup quarterbacks – Kelly Holcomb of Buffalo and Matt Schaub of Atlanta – have ravaged this Patriots secondary. It’s hard to believe that Frerotte, as bad as he’s been, can’t have one of his better days on Sunday.


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