Wednesday, September 29, 2010 Updated: September 30, 3:01 PM ET
Who are the 2010 Patriots?
By Mike Reiss ESPNBoston.com
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Three games isn't enough to answer the question, "Who are the 2010 New England Patriots?"
Four just might be enough.
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"These Monday night games tell you an awful lot about what kind of team you have, with the buildup to the game, and we're playing a very good team on the road, a division opponent," quarterback Tom Brady said Wednesday. "It's a real big game for us in the course of the season. We're really going to find out what kind of team we are."
Heading into Monday's game at the Miami Dolphins, the 2-1 Patriots have shown signs that it could head in either direction.
The defense was swarming in the first 21 snaps of the season-opening win over the Cincinnati Bengals, but it looked especially vulnerable this past Sunday against the Buffalo Bills.
The offense was on fire in the two victories, as explosive as any team in the NFL. But that unit disappeared in a scoreless second half against the New York Jets.
The Patriots clearly have it in them to play at an elite level. At the same time, they've shown they can bottom out with the cellar-dwellers.
So which will it be?
Tom Brady knows Monday's road test against the Dolphins is a defining game for the Patriots.
As Brady pointed out, a "Monday Night Football" date in Miami is the perfect stage to provide the answer. The reason is simple: The best teams find a way to win meaningful games on the road, when players come together in the locker room and realize that all they have is each other, and that is all they need.
It's what the New York Jets have already done, going into Miami on Sunday and recording a hard-fought win. It's what the Baltimore Ravens have already done, spoiling the Jets' regular-season opener in their new stadium. It's what the Pittsburgh Steelers have already done, visiting Tennessee in the second week of the season without their starting quarterback yet knocking off the Titans.
With this surely in mind, Brady seemed ready to board the plane just 30 minutes after he walked off the field from Sunday's home win over the Bills.
"We've got to win a meaningful game on the road," he said in his postgame news conference. "If we're going to be a good team, we've got to start winning on the road."
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By that measure, the Patriots weren't very good last season, when they were 1-6 in true road games, 2-6 if the trip to London against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers is included. They're already 0-1 this season, the second-half meltdown against the Jets only bringing up more questions about the Patriots' ability to win away from home.
On Wednesday, Brady insisted that because the 2009 team was significantly different than the 2010 squad, there is no carry-over effect with the road struggles. He also touched on how momentum shifts can often be more volatile on the road.
"When you're on the road, the momentum is tough to gain and it's pretty easy to give away," he said. "You can't really make [mistakes]. So that's what we're focusing on this week. There can't be mistakes. We don't have a lot of margin for error this week."
While Brady has a 40-11 regular-season record against AFC East teams, he is "only" 10-6 against the Dolphins. He's 3-5 in games played in Miami.
In addition to the importance of the Patriots winning on the road, the game also could have future implications on tie-breakers. The Jets are 2-0 in the division, and will have established early control of the AFC East if they win at Buffalo on Sunday. If the Patriots fall to 1-2 in the division, it puts them in an early hole in potential tie-breaker situations.
"Division games on the road are hugely important," Brady said. "We had one of those this year and it didn't go too well. Hopefully we can go out there and play a lot better.
"We understand that when you play in a road environment, there are other issues that come up, and we have to do a better job of handling that. If you can't win on the road, you're not going to be a very good team."
That's what this week is about for the Patriots. Brady, like he usually is with the football, was on the mark.
On Monday night, we should find out what this team is all about.
Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPN Boston. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.