Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Graham
Power Rankings: Preseason: 2. This week: 6.
Where they stand: The Patriots are atop the AFC East at 6-2 and have separated themselves from the division's other three teams. They have eight difficult games ahead, including dome trips this month to meet the undefeated Indianapolis Colts and New Orleans Saints. The Patriots have won three straight and notched an important victory Sunday over the Miami Dolphins, who were previously unbeaten in the division. With the rest of the AFC East so muddled, if the Patriots finish their remaining schedule a game above .500, then they should lock up the division title. In fact, 4-4 the rest of the way might get it done.
Disappointments: Thankfully for Patriots fans, most frustrations from the first half of the season have been addressed in some way. The Patriots still haven't discovered a reliable No. 3 receiver, but they did part ways with Joey Galloway, whose inability to develop any semblance of chemistry with Tom Brady was exasperating. Brady seems to be getting increasingly comfortable with his reconstructed left knee. Two-time Pro Bowl linebacker Adalius Thomas, benched for a game, has responded with some strong play recently. The biggest issue lately has been red zone offense. The Patriots have been moving the ball with relative ease, but settling for too many field goals.
Surprises: People knew safety Brandon Meriweather was going to be good, but he has emerged as a force at a time when the Patriots' transitioning defense needed its youth to blossom. Free agent safety Brandon McGowan, considered a role player and special-teamer when the Patriots signed him, has been an eye-opener when it comes to run support and shutting down tight ends. On offense, two rookies have emerged. Julian Edelman, a quarterback at Kent State, was drafted in the seventh round but quickly endeared himself as a receiver. Tackle Sebastian Vollmer, a second-round pick out of Houston, has filled in remarkably well for injured left tackle Matt Light and kept reigning AFC sacks leader Joey Porter from recording a tackle Sunday.
Outlook: As long as Brady and head coach Bill Belichick are running the show, New England will be a Super Bowl contender. The Patriots are running the ball more than they did in 2007, but they remain a passing team. Brady makes it look so easy with Randy Moss and Wes Welker. Belichick masterfully reshaped the defense after losing four mainstays. Inside linebacker Tedy Bruschi and safety Rodney Harrison retired to the microphone farm. Outside linebacker Mike Vrabel and defensive end Richard Seymour were traded. But the defense stayed formidable. We'll learn if they can withstand the firepower of elite offenses when they face Peyton Manning and Drew Brees.