Dave D'Onofrio's Patriots Notebook: Very good things are starting to happen
THE TRUER TESTS are still a couple of weeks away, with the Texans and 49ers arriving at Gillette Stadium for consecutive contests that will be something of an eight-day final exam for the Patriots at the end of this fall semester. It won't be until then, until evaluating them against foes from the NFL's upper tier, that we'll know with any semblance of certainty where New England belongs in a conversation about legitimate contenders.
But based on the past couple of weeks, it's OK if you don't want to wait that long to reach a conclusion. Because after the poundings they put on the Colts and the Jets, fans of the reigning AFC champions have every right to again begin thinking theirs is the team to beat.
Indianapolis and New York aren't Houston and San Francisco, so some judgment must still be reserved. Though along the way to hammering those two clubs by an aggregate count of 108-43, New England looked as sound and as complete as a pair of one-sided scores suggest, seizing opportunities, striking relentlessly and strong-arming teams in the complementary way that the best teams tend to - and had been absent among their own team's traits earlier this season.
For most of their first nine games, the Patriots were a team that couldn't regularly rely on its perpetually vulnerable defense, though over the past couple of weeks they appear to have turned a corner, so to speak. And it doesn't seem as though the timing of Aqib Talib's acquisition and activation are coincidental in that respect.
Aside from the way he introduced himself to New England by returning an interception for a touchdown against Indianapolis, his play hasn't personally been all that spectacular. But in trading for the oft-troubled corner earlier this month, the Patriots were hoping his addition would create the opportunity to maximize their personnel across the defensive backfield - and that seems to be exactly what happened.
After a season and a half of mixing and matching without ever settling on the right answer, there are indications that the addition of Talib may have finally settled things. With Talib at left corner, rookie Alfonzo Dennard has shifted to the right side, Kyle Arrington has moved into the slot more consistently, and Devin McCourty has slid back to safety.
With those changes, a secondary that was often made to look like everyone was playing out of position has suddenly started to look like everyone is where they're supposed to be. The return of Steve Gregory has helped in that regard, too, since the heady safety has been a good pair for McCourty in the back, and Thursday we saw the way it allowed Patrick Chung to play more in nickel or dime sets - a role that better suits his skills.
They've still allowed 615 yards over the past two games, and still added to their league-worst total (now of 55) by yielding a total of eight passes of more than 20 yards. But two of those longer completions came in the final four minutes of the 49-19 win over the Jets, and big chunks of that yardage came when that tilt and a 59-24 thumping of the Colts was well out of reach.
The coverage, the collaboration and the cohesion all make it looks as though something has clicked. And if you don't trust your own eyes, listen to their head coach.
"There are some moving parts there, but I think those guys have worked hard to try to improve it and I think there are some positive signs," Bill Belichick said Monday. "We need to continue to do that. You know how quick and how fast the game is, especially at that position, just a split second of anticipation or safe reaction time can make the difference between making a play and giving up a play.
"Those split seconds are very hard to measure, but the difference can be the difference in the game. I do think that it's improving. I think it should continue to improve."
The last two weeks have offered a glimpse of what could be if it does, considering that with the contributions of defense and special teams, the Patriots could've not scored a single point offensively the past two weeks and still finished the eight quarters within a touchdown and a two-point conversion of their opponents (43-35).
But even if the Pats defense is merely serviceable, they're incredibly dangerous. They were missing Aaron Hernandez for most of two months, now they're likely to miss Rob Gronkowski for the next month, yet Tom Brady has them averaging 37 points per game and on pace to break the NFL scoring record.
After topping 45 points in three of their past four games their scoring differential of plus-163 is 42 points better than the next-best team (San Francisco). And while the margin doesn't make the victories any more valuable than the five wins Baltimore has by three points or fewer, it does offer a glimpse into just how dominant this team can be when it puts everything together.
Last week they showed two of the league's mediocre teams what's possible when a standard-setting offense is partnered with an improving defense that's forced at least two turnovers in all but one game this year, and a coaching staff that so understands the pacing of a season it hasn't lost in the second half of a campaign since 2009. Over the next couple weeks they'll try to show two of the league's best.
And by now nobody should be surprised if they show everybody again come January.
Not that those in Foxborough ever had a doubt.
"I'm telling you - this team is a tough football team, mentally and physically," said defensive lineman Vince Wilfork. "When we play together, we play well. Good things happen. It's fun."
Dave D'Onofrio covers the Patriots for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.