It certainly wasn't easy or pretty, but the New England Patriots are 3-0. Considering last year New England started 1-2, the 2013 season has been a success so far.
But from this point on, playtime is over.
A win is a win is a win, but let's keep things in perspective. New England barely beat two teams led by rookie quarterbacks (the Buffalo Bills’ E.J. Manuel and New York Jets’ Geno Smith) and a third QB (Josh Freeman) playing his way out of Tampa Bay.
The Bills, Jets and Buccaneers have three wins between them, far from the iron the Patriots will face starting Sunday night against the Atlanta Falcons, a 2012 NFC Conference finalist.
A trip to Cincinnati for a tilt with the 2-1 Bengals follows after Cincy’s huge come-from-behind win over the Green Bay Packers. Then New England welcomes the undefeated New Orleans Saints to Gillette Stadium.
Three undefeated teams remain on the schedule and the combined record of the remaining opponents is 20-15. The road is about to get a lot tougher and playing at the current level—despite the improvements shown against the Buccaneers—won't be good enough to continue winning.
While the offense took significant steps forward on Sunday, the Patriots are far from efficient in the red zone, scoring a touchdown on just 30.77 percent of red-zone possessions. This contributes to the drop in scoring from 34.8 in 2012 to 19.7. Last year, New England was third in the NFL with a 67.5 red-zone TD percentage.
The numbers were boosted by the 2-for-5 success against Tampa Bay. While not great, it is much better than the 2-for-8 combined against the Bills and Jets.
Only experience will develop the chemistry and timing between QB Tom Brady and his young receivers. Kenbrell Thompkins and Aaron Dobson showed a lot of promise on Sunday. The talent is there. It's emerging, though, slowly.
Once everyone is on the same page, New England's offense should take off. Besides the receivers being where they are supposed to be, Brady has to trust in their physical abilities. When he has a feel for Dobson's speed, Brady won't under throw the Marshall product downfield.
And when the opportunities present themselves, the rookies have to make the plays. Twice this season Brady put the ball up for Dobson to go up and get it, yet Dobson didn't come down with the completion on either occasion.
The story is the same for Thompkins, who had a shot at a diving catch against the Jets that would have been a touchdown if he tucked the ball away on his way down. Thompkins also failed to get two feet inbounds along the sidelines against the Bills.
Not to be forgotten are tight end Zach Sudfeld and wide receiver Josh Boyce, who don't have a single reception between them. Sudfeld had a golden opportunity to make an impact early with Rob Gronkowski working back into game shape and Aaron Hernandez released. If Gronkowski returns against Atlanta, Sudfeld might get buried on the bench.
Boyce recorded a 4.38 40-yard dash at the NFL combine, but New England can't take advantage of that speed if they can't get the ball in Boyce's hands.
On the other side of the ball, the defense has been surprisingly good, but like the offense, it has benefited from defending bad offenses.
New England's defense is ranked eighth overall (309 yards per game) and sixth in pass defense (188 yards per game). Of some concern is the run defense that's ranked 24th (120.7 yards per game).
This could be the drawback of the youth movement along the defensive line. Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly are the only defensive tackles with any NFL experience. On-the-job training for Joe Vellano, Cory Grissom and Chris Jones will come at a price for the defense.
So far, the secondary has been the best area for the defense. The combination of cornerbacks Aqib Talib and Alfonzo Dennard with safeties Devin McCourty and Steve Gregory has really come together. They are a big reason why the Patriots have held opponents to 40 percent on third downs. But again, the quarterbacks they faced are far from elite.
Disappointing, though, has been the pass rush. With a revamped D-line that looked like rushing the passer was the priority, most of New England's sacks have been of the coverage variety.
Strategy played a role, as playing athletic quarterbacks the first three weeks of the season meant containment came before rushing the passer. With three pocket passers coming up, the performance better improve if the coaches decide to unleash the pass rush.
New England's undefeated start isn't completely hollow. It says a lot about a team that scrapped and clawed its way through two victories. It bodes well for a team that won close games. And for a Patriots franchise that depended on offense to win games in the past, it's encouraging to see the defense carry the team and close out games (the Patriots haven’t allowed a single point in the fourth quarter).
New England is off to a good start, but how good is this Patriots team? We'll start finding out on Sunday night.
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