Commentary

Five things we've learned about the Pats

Updated: October 21, 2011, 11:14 AM ET
By Mike Reiss | ESPNBoston.com

Five things we've learned about the New England Patriots entering their off weekend (hop here to read colleague Chris Forsberg's take):

1. This is one of Bill Belichick's more mentally tough teams

Unlike the 2009 season, when the Patriots went deep into late December before proving they could win in a true road game, this club checked that off the list in Week 1. Add in a Week 4 win at Oakland, and then a clutch fourth-quarter comeback against the Cowboys at home last Sunday, and a picture starts to come into focus of a team with a steely resolve.

"I thought the win against Dallas was a good, tough win for our football team that, in all honesty, we haven't had a lot of those lately," coach Bill Belichick told Showtime's "Inside the NFL" program. "The players stepped up. They made it when they had to, and you have to feel good about that, in spite of some of the other mistakes we made that day."

Some have compared that game to a Patriots-style 2003- or 2004-type win. It's well said.

While there are sure to be obstacles ahead, this team seems to have a solid core to overcome them, not to mention a positive locker-room dynamic where most of the players seem to be pulling in the right direction.

2. The simplified defense, which is improving, remains the wild card

The preseason featured glimpses of the Patriots playing a more attacking style of 4-3 defense -- the Tampa Bay game stands out, in particular -- but it hasn't really unfolded that way in the regular season. Some of the same issues that hurt the 3-4 defense in recent years (e.g. inconsistent pass rush) have cropped up again.

The last two weeks may be a signal that better times are ahead for the defense, although would anyone truly be surprised if the unit falters? Consumer confidence is rightfully fragile based on the up-and-down play.

[+] EnlargeRob Gronkowski
AP Photo/Charles KrupaRob Gronkowski tries to plow through Gerald Sensabaugh. "The players stepped up. They made it when they had to, and you have to feel good about that," Bill Belichick said afterward.

Most revealing was Belichick's explanation for switching to the 4-3, which he recently told Sirius XM NFL Radio was a result of having no offseason and "there are so many intricacies to a 3-4 defense that I just didn't know if we'd be ready to handle them this year; probably wouldn't have been, to be honest."

The other reason is that there is less carryover between the base defense and sub packages.

Is simpler better? If the last two weeks are any indication, when the Patriots won the third-down battle rather decisively, the answer is yes.

However, this is a still-developing storyline and few would be surprised if it heads in either direction.

3. Tom Brady still makes you say "Wow." Enjoy it while it lasts.

This isn't the first time that thought has come to mind when the topic is Brady. He's 34 years old, now on the back nine of his NFL career, but he sparked his impressive start to the season by throwing for a franchise-record 517 yards in the season-opening win over Miami, then followed it up with 423 in a win over the Chargers.

But part of what makes Brady special is what can't be measured on the stat sheet, and that's his mastery and command of the offense. His ability to get the Patriots in the right play based on the look of the defense is crucial, and explains why Belichick felt his performance in Oakland, when he had a season-low 226 yards, was arguably his best of the year.

Brady is never satisfied, always looking forward to the next challenge until the ultimate goal is reached. When asked a few weeks ago if he allows himself to enjoy the moment, his answer spoke volumes.

His response was that maybe at the end of the year he'd allow himself to do so.

4. Wes Welker is making himself a lot of money

In training camp, Welker said he felt the best he has in his entire career. The results have shown.

Welker has an NFL-high 51 receptions for a league-leading 785 yards and six touchdowns in an early-season performance that proves he's more than just a slot receiver. He's making big plays down the field, and remains Brady's security blanket on "got-to-have-it" plays.

[+] EnlargeWes Welker
David Butler II/US PresswireWes Welker has an NFL-high 51 receptions for a league-leading 785 yards and six touchdowns so far this season.

Welker is in the final year of his contract. Between his top-of-the-line production and consistently putting the team first (e.g. coming back from his torn ACL so quickly), he's put himself in position to strike a big payday. He's never looked better.

5. Big splashes have been underwhelming

Part of what made the start of training camp different from the norm was that Brady, who is usually a top story, became an afterthought. It was all about Chad Ochocinco and Albert Haynesworth.

The Patriots acquired both high-profile veterans in trades, and the possibilities seemed great. Fast-forward six games into the regular season and the production hasn't met expectations. Ochocinco has nine receptions and has struggled to grasp the offense while Haynesworth missed two games with a back injury and has been managed carefully.

Ochocinco is the team's fifth option on offense, while Haynesworth looks like he could help in sub packages as an interior rusher.

Not exactly the way most envisioned it unfolding.

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.

Mike Reiss

ESPN New England Patriots reporter

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