In fact, they should be No. 1.
Of course, that's a bold assertion for a team that seemed broken and doomed earlier this season. Even when they got off to a 4-0 start, they were the worst unbeaten team in the league. So how is it that now, at 9-3, they're in the running for the best team in the league?
Before we answer that, let's first step back and analyze how we got to this point. In doing so, we'll answer four critical questions that reveal the essence of this New England franchise.
Question No. 1
Who are the Patriots?
The Patriots are a team that hasn't won a Super Bowl since 2004, yet every team wants to dethrone them every single season.
Question No. 2
How can you dethrone a team that isn't actually defending anything?
The Patriots are always defending something.
Question No. 3
Why are the Patriots always defending something?
Because the Patriots are a hated team.
Question No. 4
Why are the Patriots so hated?
Because the Patriots win too much.
It's hard to imagine now, but there was a time when the Patriots had nothing to defend and they weren't a hated team. In fact, there was a time when the Patriots were the darlings of the NFL.
They played the 2001 season with a backup quarterback (Tom Brady, a former sixth-round pick, subbing in for the injured Drew Bledsoe). Also, their quarterbacks coach, Dick Rehbein, died at the young age of just 45. They were a fractured team, both physically and emotionally. They had no shot to win anything.
But as the Patriots gained improbable steam throughout 2001, they also gained an improbable fanbase (even outside of New England). Everyone rooted for them because they were Rocky-type underdogs.
That underdog status was exponentially magnified when they took on the unbeatable St. Louis Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI. When the Patriots beat the unbeatable team and hoisted the Lombardi trophy, they became "America's team."
But then something weird happened: The Patriots kept winning.
That was a violation of the underdog manifesto; as a rule of thumb, underdogs aren't supposed to stay on top.
Look at the Giants: Even after winning Super Bowl XLII in 2007, they came back in 2008 looking uneven and disjointed, while Eli Manning still struggled with the same issues of inconsistency that had always kept him pegged as "Peyton Manning's little brother."
The Giants missed the playoffs in 2009 and 2010. Then, of course, Manning and the Giants roared back and won the Super Bowl in 2011. And then like clockwork, they missed the playoffs in 2012 and started 2013 with an 0-6 record.
In being so inconsistent, the Giants have actually done "the underdog thing" correctly. That's why so many people (even non-Giants fans) are always rooting for them to come back and win it all, despite the fact that they've already won two Super Bowls in the last seven years.
Who's rooting for the Patriots to win it all, aside from hardcore Patriots fans?
In being so consistent, the Patriots have done "the underdog thing" incorrectly.
Not only did they win the Super Bowl in 2001, 2003 and 2004, but Brady actually got better after those dynasty years. His statistics skyrocketed, and he won two MVP awards, thereby dispelling the notion that he was merely a game manager who relied on a dynasty-caliber defense to win at a high level.
And despite the fact that Brady's arsenal kept changing around him, he never stopped improving. He made his team a contender every year. And he's currently having a poor statistical season by his standards, throwing mostly to no-name receivers, yet he's still in the MVP discussion.
That kind of stuff isn't supposed to happen. That's why Brady boggles people's minds. And the Patriots shouldn't be winning so often (and in so many different incarnations), which is why the team boggles people's minds. And the more Brady and the Patriots boggle people's minds, the more frustration it breeds.
Frustration leads to confusion.
Confusion leads to, well, it leads to Texans defensive end Antonio Smith.
After the Patriots beat the Texans last week, Smith drew a connection between New England's infamous Spygate scandal and the way New England "miraculously" beat his team, saying (via The Boston Globe):
Either teams are spying on us or scouting us, I don't know what it is. We had some ways that we were going to play this week that just got put in this week, and it was just miraculous that [the Patriots] changed up some things that they did on offense and keyed on what we put in this week to stop what they were doing.
You would have to be a descendant of [Nostradamus] to know what we put in this week to be able to change that fast. There's no way, we have not done it ever before and they had never changed it ever before.
So it was just kind of fishy how it got changed. It just let me know that something just ain't right.
Smith also said (via ESPN):
I'm very suspicious. I just think it will be a big coincidence if that just happened by chance. I don't know for sure, but I just know it was something that we practiced this week.
When you watch film of the team do something a certain way all the time no matter what team they play -- it's been 12 games played, and they always did it -- and then all of a sudden it's changed? It was pretty clever and pretty suspicious.
At the end of the day, it doesn't matter whether or not Smith's comments were tongue-in-cheek, or whether or not he was merely expressing frustration after seeing his team lose 10 games in a row.
What's important here is the timing of his words. That Spygate reference wasn't made when the Patriots were losing (as they were earlier this year), it was made when the Patriots were finally starting to gel.
Of course the "Spygate talk" resurfaced two weeks after the Patriots took down the mighty, Super Bowl-favorite Broncos. And, of course, the Spygate talk resurfaced a week after the Patriots took down a Texans team that, just a few months ago, was considered by many to be the favorite coming out of the AFC.
Of course, now that the Patriots are building steam, people just have to wonder why they're winning so much. I mean, how can they be winning with Julian Edelman, Kenbrell Thompkins, Danny Amendola, Shane Vereen and LeGarrette Blount? How does that happen? It's impossible, right?
Gotta get the Spygate talk in there. It's an easy way to explain the unexplainable (even if the unexplainable is pretty explainable: The Patriots are really just that good).
This much is certain: When people start rehashing Spygate, you know the Patriots are back.
And, as far as the NFL's top team goes, there's only one team battling the Patriots for that title right now: The Seahawks.
The Seahawks are awesome. Quarterback Russell Wilson is making an early case for why he's the best signal-caller of his generation. He plays the game the right way, he says all the right things, he walks the tightrope between having killer swagger and being extremely humble, he's a football prodigy and he's just an all-around admirable guy.
And Seattle's defense is no joke. Those defensive backs are always in the right place at the right time. Everyone on that defensive unit is doing their job at an exceptionally high level. Every defensive player plays with extreme machismo; they run fast, hit hard and drink blood. You could tell the Saints were afraid during last week's game; the Seahawks inspire dread in their foes.
That team is aggressive, hungry and imposing. And, to be honest, they're just a brilliant team to watch. Coach Pete Carroll has done a masterful job constructing a championship-caliber team.
But we need to remember that they're also a young team with some inexperience. Remember, the 49ers were considered by many to be Super Bowl favorites in 2011, until a few key mental errors on special teams cost them the NFC Championship and sent the Giants to the Super Bowl.
Young teams make those key mental errors.
As great as the Seahawks are (and they are unbelievably great), it'll be interesting to see if they can avoid those natural pitfalls in the playoffs this season.
Patriots vs. Seahawks in the Super Bowl? Very well could be.
In the meantime, the Patriots are back in the running for the NFL's best team.