While the New England Patriots won nine straight games to start the year, those who watched the games knew the offense wasn't nearly as reliable as years past. A ridiculous stretch from the defense and a favorable schedule gave the appearance that this team was as unbeatable as previous iterations. But over the last three weeks, and especially in their 28-22 loss to the Texans on Sunday Night Football, it's become clear that the offense is in some serious trouble.
This version of the Patriots has nobody outside of Julian Edelman who can create separation in man coverage. Jakobi Meyers, Phillip Dorsett, and Mohamed Sanu are all solid players, but aren't going to be juking cornerbacks out of their shoes, nor do they have the physicality to out-muscle opponents. Thus, Tom Brady and Josh McDaniels have to rely on scheming guys open when they face man coverage. This is a solvable problem, and the obvious solution is using play-action to catch defenders out of position.
But you can't really use play-action if teams don't fear your run game, and nobody is scared of the Patriots' run game this season. They've struggled immensely in that area after plowing over everyone in their way during last season's Super Bowl run, in large part due to turnover on the offensive line; starting center David Andrews went down for the year before the season began, Isaiah Wynn has only just returned from IR, and Marcus Cannon has dealt with one issue or another for much of the season. They haven't been able to establish a rhythm, and while Sony Michel is a quality football player, he's not good enough to create space when there is none.
As a result, New England is reluctant to lean on the run game for too long if it isn't immediately productive. And even when it is, as we saw early on in their matchup against Houston, they still tend to go away from it because they don't believe they can keep it up. As a result, it's just Brady dropback after Brady dropback where he waits for someone to eventually get open or (more often than not) throw the ball away. This has worked in the past, but with this personnel, it isn't tenable.
Brady is older and this is probably his worst season since his early days as a starter. But the problem goes far beyond the fact that he can no longer will his team to wins. They can't decide if they'll dedicate themselves to the run and open up the pass, or dedicate themselves to the dink-and-dunk game to open up the run. They need to figure out which direction they have to go in, otherwise they'll be hard-pressed to repeat their success from last season.