The AFC is stacked this year. We figured that would be the case coming in.
There are several teams vying for the top spot. We assumed that, too.
At the end of Week 8, the New England Patriots hold the top spot. We didn't plan on that. Nobody did.
Not after the defense was shredded by rookie quarterback Sam Bradford's St. Louis Rams and the New York Giants in the preseason. Not after the team took the field and gave up 30 points to a hapless Buffalo team.
And definitely not after the team seemingly went full-fledged into 2011 preparation mode by trading Pro Bowl receiver and fan favorite Randy Moss to the Minnesota Vikings.
We were wrong. The team won with that defense, and without that receiver.
They won again. And again. And now they are the only NFL team at 6-1. The reigning champion New Orleans Saints didn't make it. The Indianapolis Colts didn't, either. The preseason favorite Dallas Cowboys came up a game, or two, or five short.
But the tide has turned. ESPN ranks the Patriots as the No. 1 team in the league. Fans (and there are many) are gathering to state that the team looks a lot like those grit-over-glamor teams that won Super Bowl titles between 2001 and 2004.
The Patriots win ugly. They win turnover battles. Tom Brady's favorite target is simply the open man. The defense steps up on third down and in the red zone.
But we'll know soon if their status is justified. They travel to Pittsburgh to play the Steelers Nov. 14. A week later, they face the Colts at home.
Those games are without a question the toughest on the schedule. Pittsburgh owns one of the most intimidating defenses and home-field advantages in the game.
Indianapolis has won five of its last six games against New England, including its last two at Gillette Stadium.
Those matchups should either prove the Patriots' worth, or kick start a second consecutive slide into mediocrity. After all, we've seen this before.
Last year, the Patriots were 5-2 after Week 8. They had just defeated Tennessee 59-0, and Tampa Bay 35-7. They had another key matchup ahead of them with Miami and won that, 27-17, to go to 6-2.
Then they traveled to Indianapolis and the roof caved in. New England collapsed in a 35-34 loss. It lost two weeks later, at New Orleans, 38-17. It lost the following week in Miami, 22-21.
When the playoffs came, New England was 10-6, but it was a shell of its 6-2 and confident self. The free fall was complete with a 33-14 dismantling at the hands of the visiting Baltimore Ravens in the first round of the playoffs.
It was a stretch against quality opponents that shattered the Patriots' 2009 season. This year may be the same story, or it may not.
If this team is built in the same mold as the champions of 2001, 2003 and 2004, it won't be. New England will play its best against the best. It'll play Pittsburgh and Indianapolis in close games, and it will find a way to win. It won't be pretty, but the Patriots will get a win in Pittsburgh, and again against Indianapolis.
That's if they are who we want to say they are. If they're last year's Patriots, the defense will look vulnerable again. Brady will still be unable to make plays when the team needs a conversion. And once again, Peyton Manning will set up residence inside Bill Belichick's head.
New England may be what it used to be. We'll find out soon enough.
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