The New England Patriots were able to squeak out a 29-26 victory over the New York Jets on Sunday in front of their home crowd. It took overtime to tally the win, but Tom Brady and Co. now sit atop the AFC East and have a half-game lead over the idle Miami Dolphins.
After last year's Super Bowl appearance and a strong offseason—signing wide receiver Brandon Lloyd and drafting Dont'a Hightower and Chandler Jones to bolster the defense—the Patriots appeared to be the class of the division and the entire AFC when the season began. But after a shaky 4-3 start, one has to wonder whether this group has what it takes to emerge as legitimate title contenders in 2012.
New England's three losses are by a combined four points, so it isn't like the team chooses not to show up for certain games.
The Arizona Cardinals were fortunate to have Patriots' kicker Stephen Gostkowski miss a kick at the end of regulation in Week 2. And New England's defense wasn't quite able to fend off two fourth-quarter comeback attempts by the Baltimore Ravens (Week 3) and Seattle Seahawks just last week.
If there is one thing holding the Patriots back, it is their defense—very similar to last season, when they ranked 31st in the league in total yards at 411.1 per game. New England is allowing 376.4 yards per game so far this season.
Though it might not seem like a huge difference, the Patriots are allowing 23.3 points per game this season compared to last year's 21.4.
New England's inability to hold on to leads is what is ultimately costing them in the win column. If the defense can tighten up and correct in this area, the Patriots should be fine as the season progresses.
As long as Brady leads this team, it seems they will always be considered as one of the elite in the AFC—especially if the Patriots can continue to run the ball at their current rate (149.3 YPG). However, the emergence of the Houston Texans could be New England's biggest obstacle in making a return trip to the Super Bowl.
The Texans have long been considered a sleeper in the AFC, but injuries have kept this team from contending in the past. After Sunday's 43-13 throttling of the Ravens, Houston has arrived.
The loss of linebacker Brian Cushing could have had a negative impact on the team's psyche, but it seems as though injuries won't even derail the Texans' ascent to the top of the AFC in 2012.
The Patriots can score with any team in the league. When you give Brady weapons like Wes Welker, Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez and Brandon Lloyd, along with an improved running game, New England will always have a chance at the end of games.
But if the defense can't stop Seattle and the Jets from scoring to preserve fourth-quarter leads, imagine how easy it will be for the Texans to light up the scoreboard in front of its home fans in a playoff atmosphere.