Suddenly, Patriots have hope

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The Patriots posted more than just a victory Sunday. They delivered something their followers had been searching for since a mid-November night in Indianapolis when fourth-and-2 took on a life of its own and the season turned turbulent.


Sunday's resounding 35-7 victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars isn't a cure-all and one big question -- can they win on the road against a top-caliber team? -- continues to hover over them.

Yet what unfolded at raucous Gillette Stadium, coupled with what transpired in other NFL cities, at least makes you pause and consider this: If the Patriots put forth a similar performance in the playoffs, anything could be possible.

The identity-seeking offense looked unstoppable at times and the defense swarmed to the ball with gang tackle after gang tackle, playing with an exuberance not often seen this season. The special teams were aggressive, the play calling was sharp and the players were having fun.

Even the sellout crowd got into the act early in the fourth quarter after Randy Moss caught a 17-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Tom Brady. The Jaguars challenged the call, questioning if Moss had crossed the goal line, and during the break in the action a sharp-eyed stadium camera operator spotted a fan wearing a Randy Moss mask.

The stadium erupted and the roars grew louder when the fan mimicked Moss's touchdown celebration, the one in which he moves his hands away from each other to show how he separates a defense. Moss himself caught the act and started laughing with his teammates on the sideline, and before long the real Moss was shown on the scoreboard responding with his own celebration.

Gillette was jumping, the energy level peaking as the crowd broke out in a chant of "Randy! Randy! Randy!"

It was that type of day, the team's best since a 59-0 snow-filled win over the Titans on Oct. 18, and one that reflects how quickly things can change in the NFL.

Two weeks ago in this same stadium, Moss was booed. Now it seemed like he had 68,756 chanting his name.

The irony wasn't lost on one Patriots player, and it's why New England football followers aren't the only ones who have some hope today. The players have some, too, because things can change fast in the NFL.

All it takes is a look around the league to understand that.

Two weeks ago, the New Orleans Saints were going for an undefeated season and looked unstoppable. Now they're 13-2, coming off a 20-17 home loss Sunday to the lowly Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

The Cincinnati Bengals are yet another example of a team that seemed to be hitting its stride, but has since been derailed. They had to scrape by Sunday to post a 17-10 home win over the doormat Kansas City Chiefs.

The New York Giants recently looked like a team capable of making a playoff run, but they fell hard Sunday, losing 41-9 at home to the Carolina Panthers.

These are just a few examples of the fragility of the NFL life, and Patriots fans need no reminders. It was just last week that the team looked dead as the Bills drove the ball right down the throat of a defense that looked anything but ready for prime time before finally settling in.

In the quiet of the Patriots' locker room following Sunday's resounding win over the Jaguars, one player said this is the area in which coach Bill Belichick deserves perhaps the most credit.

Belichick regularly reminds his players to resist the temptation of riding the highs and lows of the season, and it probably helps that Belichick himself doesn't change much from week to week. The message is consistent. The delivery doesn't fluctuate.

This is where you have to tip your cap to the Patriots, for their ability to fight through adversity and give themselves a chance. This is a team that didn't earn its first true road victory until Dec. 20 -- which Brady called embarrassing -- and looked at times to be coming apart at the seams. They might not have the championship pedigree of teams from earlier this decade, a point that veteran Jaguars defensive lineman John Henderson made Sunday, but no one can say they don't have resolve.

The postgame scene Sunday was anything but over the top. Belichick told the players to enjoy their accomplishment, one he felt they earned, but it wasn't like there were champagne corks flying through the room.

"I think it is definitely a step in the right direction, against a team that has fought hard against other good teams in this league and won some good games too," said defensive lineman Ty Warren, one of the veteran spokesmen in the Patriots' locker room. "But I am not parading the hats and T-shirts around now. I'm happy we're the AFC East champions, but at the same time, we know there is more work to do."

Surely, there will be doubters who point to the fact that all the Patriots did Sunday was beat a flawed team, one that can't rush the passer and is too young to win on the road in late December. Looking solely through the narrow lens of the game itself, it's hard to argue with that.

Yet taking a wider view of the league and considering the struggles of the Saints, Bengals, Giants, Vikings and even the Colts -- whose decision to yank Peyton Manning against the Jets could derail their momentum -- it seems out of context to simply dismiss what took place at Gillette Stadium as irrelevant in the big picture.

The Patriots have traveled a hard road to make it to this point.

Yet here they are, in the playoffs, and now with a little bit of hope.

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPN Boston. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.