Commentary

Some promising signs for Patriots

Updated: October 31, 2013, 12:05 AM ET
By Mike Reiss | ESPNBoston.com

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The days get shorter, the weather gets colder, and the complexion of NFL games often change. Teams must evolve, and position themselves as well as possible for down-the-stretch success, during this annual transition.

That's essentially what New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady said Wednesday, and the words resonated for multiple reasons.

First, consider what we saw this past Sunday at Gillette Stadium, where the Patriots recorded a 27-17 victory over the Miami Dolphins. It was an elements game, the wind whipping through with enough force that it directly affected game management and strategy.

One team adjusted well in the second half, the other not so much.

Second, there was what we saw Wednesday around 10:20 a.m. ET when the Patriots arrived on the upper practice fields and every player was present, a reflection of a banged-up team that is getting healthier. Maybe that's why Bill Belichick, who manages the roster with the idea of being at its best down the stretch, seemed to be a bit chipper during his news conference that preceded the workout.

Some players remain limited in their work, and with the bye weekend Nov. 9-10, a few recovering players still might be held out of Sunday's home game against the Pittsburgh Steelers. But things appear to be looking up for a team that has hit hard by injuries through the first half of the season, and it will look even better if the Patriots can improve to 7-2 entering the bye.

"We realize after the game there's a little break, but you have to just do everything you can. This is the mid-part of the season. We've been at it a while, 12 weeks [of games], and this is when the teams start to separate themselves," said Brady, who continues to downplay any issues with his right throwing hand.

"You have mental toughness, discipline, doing the right thing, making right decisions, that's when this becomes part of football season. I think that's been a good strength of ours over the years -- getting better and improve as the season's gone along -- making sure you get your rest, you get the right treatments, you understand what it takes during November and December to win.

"At this point, we'll see what we've got. The weather is turning, the game changes a little bit. We have to be able to adjust and play the style that we need to win."

They did so expertly against the Dolphins, adjusting during the game to call more up-the-middle blitzes to force tougher throws to the sideline in windy conditions. And Belichick's end-of-the-third-quarter timeout, preserving the wind for a 48-yard field goal and then the ensuing kickoff to set up good field position, was the "situational football" that Belichick preaches at its best.

For such a young team, the game was a valuable learning experience, specifically for someone like rookie punter Ryan Allen, who had experienced that type of wind only once in his career.

Who knows what the weather will bring for a Nov. 24 night game at home against Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos? There are also December home games against the Cleveland Browns and Buffalo Bills, and a Sunday night game at Baltimore on Dec. 22. Elements will be a factor, for sure.

Meanwhile, after considerable roster turnover in early September and even into early October, there seems to be a sense around the team that things are more solidified, one of the final pieces coming Tuesday at the NFL's trade deadline when veteran nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga was acquired from the Philadelphia Eagles. Veteran defensive end Andre Carter was brought back the week before.

When it becomes more challenging to throw the ball in colder conditions, teams often turn to the run. Sopoaga and Carter, who look good coming off the bus from a height-weight standpoint, give the Patriots a better chance at stopping it after losing space-eater Vince Wilfork to a season-ending torn Achilles on Sept. 29.

Wilfork isn't coming back, and neither is do-everything linebacker Jerod Mayo (lost with a torn pectoral muscle on Oct. 13) or starting right tackle Sebastian Vollmer (serious right leg injury on Oct. 27). Those are big hits, but we've seen the Patriots absorb other biggies in the past and still be in the championship hunt.

"You never know when those kinds of things are going to happen. Fortunately, we haven't been in the situation this year where we're having to take offensive guys and put them on defense, and stuff like that, which at times we've had to do in the past," said Belichick, who will get running back Shane Vereen back on Nov. 18 as he practiced for the first time on Wednesday. "It hasn't gotten to that point, but we've had to make some adjustments."

And surely, they'll have more to make over the final eight games of the season, but one gets the sense that Belichick likes the core of this Patriots team.

So here we are, having reached the point where the days get shorter, the weather gets colder and the complexion of NFL games often change -- and there are some promising signs.

Now, as Brady said, let's truly see what the Patriots got.

Mike Reiss

ESPN New England Patriots reporter

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