- James Walker, ESPN Staff Writer
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The New England Patriots have a losing record for the first time in nine years. Their head coach is in hot water with the NFL for grabbing an official, there are key injuries on offense and the Patriots have a tough road game Sunday against the Buffalo Bills (2-1).
Stick a fork in the Patriots. They're done, right?
Not so fast.
The Patriots are still elite. They just don't have the record to show for it after three games. But do not be fooled by the standings in September. New England (1-2) will be right where many expect by the end of the regular season: in contention for another Super Bowl.
The reigning AFC champs are off to a slow start. But there is no need for alarm in New England. Here are five reasons not to push the panic button:
No. 1: The AFC East is a weak division
This is another down year for the AFC East. All you need to know is that the New York Jets (2-1) are in first place with Pro Bowl cornerback Darrelle Revis out for the season. How long will that last?
The Patriots are just one game out of first place and will be back on top of the AFC East soon. New England has owned the division the last dozen years and remains the best team in the AFC East. Winning the division is the gateway to the playoffs and a home postseason game. The Patriots will have both in January.
The Patriots will beat the Bills (2-1) on Sunday to get back to .500. (Don't doubt my AFC East picks. I'm 9-1 this season.) The Bills' young secondary will be picked apart by Tom Brady and New England. Buffalo also lacks the offensive firepower to keep up with the Patriots, especially if dynamic tailback C.J. Spiller (shoulder) sits out and veteran running back Fred Jackson (knee) isn't 100 percent.
It could be a three-way tie for first place by Sunday night if the San Francisco 49ers take care of business against the Revis-less Jets. The Patriots have the easiest strength of schedule in the NFL, and they will begin to distance themselves from the AFC East pack in the second half of the season.
No. 2: The Patriots' losses are overrated
Yes, the Patriots are 1-2. But they are within a hair of 3-0. The Patriots' two losses have come on last-second kicks.
Against the Arizona Cardinals, New England kicker Stephen Gostkowski shanked a late field-goal attempt wide left. In the loss to Baltimore, Ravens kicker Justin Tucker narrowly made a 27-yard field goal to win it. Both games could have gone either way.
Without those two kicks, the Patriots would be undefeated entering Week 4 and viewed as the class of the NFL. But the ball didn't bounce New England's way two weeks in a row.
"It's not like we sit here and look in the locker room and say: Wow, we're terrible. We can't make any plays, we're not even in these games," Brady said this week. "We're right in them. We just have to do a better job in certain areas. If we do that, we will start winning close games."
No. 3: New England never panics
Remember last season?
The Patriots were 5-3 and lost two straight games, to the New York Giants and Pittsburgh Steelers. Many on the outside wrote off the Patriots as has-beens. Instead, New England reeled off 10 straight victories, including playoffs, on its way to another Super Bowl appearance.
Every team has rough patches during the season. The Patriots' adversity came early this season. But the difference between New England and other teams is that the Patriots never panic. They don't have to -- they have the NFL's best coach (Bill Belichick) and an elite quarterback (Brady). That is their edge over most teams, especially within the division. As long as Brady is healthy this season, the Patriots will win the AFC East.
No. 4: Youngsters will improve
The Patriots are relying on an unusual amount of rookies and second-year players in key roles this season.
Rookies like defensive end Chandler Jones and linebacker Dont'a Hightower will only get better with experience. Both are showing flashes of playmaking ability. New England is also relying on second-year players like tailback Stevan Ridley and left tackle Nate Solder, who are full-time starters for the first time.
Jones, Hightower, Ridley and Solder will all improve and be more consistent as the season goes on. That will raise the level of the Patriots offensively and defensively. New England's defense, for example, has already improved from No. 31 to No. 14 this season. Much of that increase is due to the impact of Jones and Hightower.
No. 5: Aaron Hernandez will return
The Patriots struggled after second tight end Hernandez went down with an ankle injury. But Hernandez is making progress in his rehabilitation.
A source told me that Hernandez will be out until at least October. But I was also told Hernandez is a fast healer. Hernandez has already been spotted in the locker room without crutches or a boot on his ankle. These are great signs that he is recovering well.
The Patriots will benefit immensely when Hernandez returns. He is New England's most versatile player on offense and the glue that makes the scheme work. Hernandez can play various positions. He can also stretch the field and take pressure off fellow tight end Rob Gronkowski and Pro Bowl receiver Wes Welker. When Hernandez gets healthy, the Patriots' offense will be back at full strength -- and that is bad news for the rest of the league.
Add up these factors and it's clear New England remains an elite football team. Things do not look rosy after the first three games. But better days are ahead for the Patriots, and it all starts Sunday against the Bills.
New England, Baltimore (3-1) and the Houston Texans (3-0) remain the best teams in the AFC. Chances are one of those clubs will represent the conference in Super Bowl XLVII in February, and the Patriots still have as good a shot as any team.
3dField Yates and Rich Cimini