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Patriots' season up in the air with middling start

Patriots coach Bill Belichick once said a team needs at least six weeks to figure out its identity.

If that's the case, he must not like what he's seeing thus far.

The Patriots are 3-3 as they head into Sunday's home game against the New York Jets, and while the three losses have come by a combined four points, major flaws were exposed in each of those games — and, to some degree, in the wins, too.

A quick glance at the standings would suggest the Patriots are nothing more than a mediocre team, but quarterback Tom Brady, who's been through his share of ups and downs (granted, more ups than downs), doesn't abide by the philosophy that six weeks defines a season, not when all four AFC East teams are dead even with 3-3 records.

&#';There are seven teams in the AFC that are 3-3, there are seven that are below 3-3, and there are two that are better than us,&#'; Brady said, the latter two being the Baltimore Ravens and the Houston Texans. &#';We played one of those (Baltimore), and we were up nine points with however long to go, and the other team (Houston) got beat by a bunch of points the other night.&#';

The Patriots need a win starting Sunday against the Jets, not just because they don't want to fall below .500, which would qualify as a rarity in the Belichick era, but also for the simple that fact they don't want New York gaining an edge in the division race. The Jets are already 2-0 in the division and would be 3-0 with a win Sunday.

The Jets haven't been particularly dominant either. Prior to New York's win over the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday, a game in which Shonn Greene rushed for three touchdowns, the Jets had lost a nail-biter to Houston and suffered an embarrassing, shutout loss to the San Francisco 49ers.

&#';You almost get the feeling like you're in college and you're playing your rival school,&#'; said special teams ace Matthew Slater, &#';so I feel like I'm playing USC, for me personally.

&#';The rivalry here, it doesn't really matter what the records are. It just so happens that we're 3-3 at this point, but they want to beat us, and we want to beat them. We don't have too many fond feelings towards them, and the same goes for them; they're not too crazy about us, either.&#';

The key to success might be running the ball; the Jets rank near the bottom of the league in run defense, but in order to exploit this weakness, the Patriots need to be committed to running the ball early and often. As good as Stevan Ridley has been (he's ranked fifth in the league in rushing), he and the rest of the backs haven't been consistent enough to legitimize New England's running game as a major threat.

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