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CHICAGO -- Most of the players are different and many of the coaches are, too, but there is a familiar feeling around the 2010 New England Patriots.
It's that special vibe that results when everything comes together, momentum builds, and 53 players and a top coaching staff are all pulling in the same direction. It happened in 2001, 2003, 2004 and 2007, which were some Super seasons in New England.
It looks as though it's happening again, surprisingly so, given the youth of the defense and how the offense has reshaped itself on the fly after trading receiver Randy Moss in early October.
|Deion Branch celebrates after he and the Patriots took the Bears by surprise with a 59-yard touchdown just before halftime for a 33-0 lead.|
Defensive lineman Vince Wilfork was around for two of those special seasons, so he knows a good thing when he's part of it. This is it.
"We're capable of a lot," Wilfork said in a jubilant locker room following Sunday's 36-7 snowplowing of the 9-4 Chicago Bears in snowy, windy conditions at Soldier Field. "The past two weeks, you've seen what we can do if we go out and play as a team and don't make stupid mistakes. It doesn't shock us these past two weeks."
It might not have shocked them -- the blowout of the Bears following a 45-3 pasting of the Jets on Monday night -- but it certainly has surprised many others.
Few saw the Patriots, now at 11-2 and having clinched a playoff berth, as an elite club at the start of the season. Too young. Too many questions on the coaching staff with Bill Belichick not naming offensive and defensive coordinators. Some even questioned if quarterback Tom Brady still had the necessary commitment since he wasn't spending full offseasons at the team facility.
Any questions now?
This is how fast expectations shift. Some of those same people are now stating it will be a disappointment if this club doesn't advance to the Super Bowl.
What most New Englanders can agree on, especially after another party in the snow (the Patriots are 10-0 in snow under Belichick), is that this ride has been one of the most enjoyable to this point because it has been so unexpected.
One can see how much Belichick himself is enjoying it. After saying how proud he was of his players in his postgame remarks, he decided to celebrate with them afterward, mingling with them in the locker room as reporters conducted interviews. Belichick stopped to chat with any reporter who approached him, making the postgame scene different from the norm.
It was a case of Belichick lowering his guard, which is likely a result of him knowing, at this point of the season, what he has in his locker room. It might not be the most talented team of his 11-year tenure, but it's the right mix of veteran leaders and athletic, fast youngsters -- which is to say this team is the anti-2009 Patriots.
Belichick's message is getting through, which was clear when almost every player, when asked about crushing the Bears, mentioned how the team had a big challenge ahead next Sunday against Green Bay.
That talking point had Belichick's fingerprints all over it. Always looking ahead to the next challenge, even after making a resounding statement to the rest of the NFL over the past six days.
"It's good, but we're just going to keep playing," Belichick said of the team's clinching a playoff berth. "I'm sure when the end of the season comes, someone will tell us what we need to do."
The way Brady and the Patriots are playing, it's not a stretch to say that could come Feb. 6 at Cowboys Stadium in Super Bowl XLV. Confidence is clearly growing among players.
"We're capable of a lot," safety James Sanders said. "We have a lot of experience, a lot of youth, playmaking ability, athleticism, and you don't see that too often. We're playing good at the right time."
Asked if he has the feeling that something special could be happening, Sanders said, "It could be. But the key is that we have to keep getting better week to week. If we do that, the sky is the limit. Our coach demands a lot out of us each and every week and we demand a lot from ourselves. We're going to strive to be the best team we can be and play our best football at the right time, and if we do that, anything is possible."
Part of what seems to be keeping the team hungry is that "anything" also includes a blowout loss. The Patriots still talk about their last defeat -- a 34-14 thumping by the Cleveland Browns on Nov. 7 -- as if it happened last week, which is why offensive lineman Logan Mankins said players aren't about to believe the hype. That message, "Don't believe the hype," is on a sign that players see every time they exit their facility at Gillette Stadium.
"You just look back at a game like that and that keeps you motivated, where you can never let up and stay practicing hard and lifting hard, studying film," Mankins said. "I think that has helped everyone stay focused on the job at hand."
"All we have to focus on is writing our story each and every week," added tight end Alge Crumpler, one of the team's captains. "I think the worst thing that can happen is for any of us to look ahead. We've been very focused on the task at hand."
The next chapter comes Sunday at home against a Green Bay team that could be without quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who left Sunday's loss to the Detroit Lions with a concussion.
The way the Patriots are playing, look out. Just ask the Jets and Bears.
"We played 60 minutes of football; we always talk about that and finishing games, and for the first time this year, in back-to-back weeks, I think we've been very, very close," Wilfork said. "When we play like that, we can do a lot. It's all on us."
We've seen it before -- a team that is well-coached, plays well in nasty weather, has a quarterback playing MVP-caliber football, and gets better as the calendar turns to November and December.
The New England Patriots are back atop the NFL, having put themselves in position to potentially write another Super story.
Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPN Boston. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.