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Are Patriots on top of their game?

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- OK, let's level with each other and get right down to it. The New England Patriots' 13-3 record is nice. So, too, is their No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs.

But when it comes to confidence in this team entering the postseason, you're feeling a little torn, right?

There are flashes of excellence when it all comes together, as happened during parts of the second half of Sunday's regular-season finale against the Buffalo Bills. But there also are disasters such as the first quarter of the same game when the defense, in particular, looked overmatched as the Patriots faced a 21-0 deficit.

So you applaud their mental toughness, the impressive ability to overcome seemingly any situation, which is a trait that can take a team far. At the same time, you wonder how a defense coached by Bill Belichick, who became the first coach with five 13-win seasons, could look so bad for long stretches of time. You think of recent playoff losses and can't help but ask, "Why will this year be any different?"

Maybe, then, the best way to describe this 2011 edition is to call them the Perplexing Pats.

That might also explain why players described Belichick's message to them following the 49-21 win over the Bills -- in which they scored 49 unanswered points -- as being mixed.

On one hand, he congratulated them on the bottom-line results. On the other hand, he told them they were flirting with trouble.

"We know it's hard to go 13-3 in this league; there is no doubt about that. But we also know that we can't start out like that, spotting a team 21 points in the playoffs and think we're just going to be able to come back," Patriots special teams captain Matthew Slater said. "Going forward, we have to be able to play better early on or we're going to be in trouble."

That thought was echoed in all corners of the team's locker room. When the question was asked whether the Patriots could execute a similar escape in the playoffs, veteran offensive lineman Brian Waters was emphatic.

"I'm going to say no. I'm going to flat-out say no," he responded. "I think everybody cares and everybody realizes that once you're in the playoffs it's not something you can do. When you start seeing the Steelers, the Ravens, the Houston Texans, when you start seeing those names and teams that can really put up some numbers and really play good defense -- we're talking about some good defensive teams -- you can't afford that."

It was good enough against the Denver Broncos (16-7 deficit early in the second quarter), Miami Dolphins (17-0 deficit at halftime) and Buffalo Bills (21-0 deficit after the first quarter), the last three opponents the Patriots faced.

In each of those cases, the Patriots made the necessary defensive adjustments along the way. Sunday against the Bills, defenders talked about mixing up their looks in the second half with wrinkles such as linebacker Dane Fletcher playing closer to the line of scrimmage, and a few personnel tweaks also seemed to help, with Sterling Moore (two interceptions) taking over for Kyle Arrington at right cornerback and Julian Edelman replacing Nate Jones in the slot.

Can the Patriots live on the edge like that in the playoffs and survive?

"I don't think so," linebacker Jerod Mayo answered. "To be honest with you, every team in the playoffs is a good team. It will be tough. I'm not going to say it will be impossible, but it will be tough. We have to play 60 minutes, which we haven't done yet. We have to come out and start fast."

The answers will come when the Patriots open the postseason Jan. 14 against either No. 4 Denver, No. 5 Pittsburgh or No. 6 Cincinnati in a Saturday night game at Gillette Stadium.

Waters, for one, believes a complete 60-minute game still is within the Patriots' reach. He pointed to the 49-0 run the Patriots went on over the final three quarters Sunday as evidence.

"It's definitely fixable," he said. "It would be different if we didn't have the type of skill or the type of personnel to be able to make it happen. We definitely do, and it shows the other three quarters when we were able to do it."

That thought nicely captured the vibe around the team on Sunday.

They weren't apologizing for their 13-3 record and No. 1 seed in the AFC, a conference in which no team has distinguished itself on a weekly basis. But they also see the same flaws as everyone else, so they'll get back to work Tuesday in hopes of addressing them.

The formula has worked to this point, and now we'll see if it delivers when it matters most.

This is a team that's tough but at the same time vulnerable. It's a team that is explosive but also inconsistent.

Add it all up and what do you get?

The Perplexing Pats, of course.

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.