There is no disputing that the New England Patriots have looked impressive of late.
Blowout wins over other elite-record teams like the Pittsburgh Steelers, New York Jets and Chicago Bears have caused more than a fair share of NFL commentators to already crown the Pats this year's Super Bowl Champions.
This is the media world the NFL lives in, where one game turns a team from a Super Bowl contender into a write-off (just ask the New York Jets) or vice versa.
In the case of Tom Brady, Bill Belichick and the Patriots, they are always contenders. The hyperbole tends to work in a different way: the media awards them the Lombardi Trophy sometime between September and December.
Trouble is, the Super Bowl is played next year, and there's a lot of football to be played between now and then.
Here are some reasons why it's far too early to call the rest of the season moot and start handing out championship rings to the Patriots.
1. Key Injuries
Several teams have had their seasons wrecked or damaged by key injuries. So far, the Patriots haven't been one of them. But just ask Brett Favre: even a 297-long games-played streak can come to an end with one hit in the wrong place at the wrong time. The Patriots and Brady know this as well as anyone: during last year's playoffs against the Ravens, Welker was out, Brady was hobbled and the Patriots were completely steamrolled on their own field.
In this season where defenders are going at quarterbacks like a piñata, you can bet as the season winds down and the playoffs unfold, teams will be taking every shot they can at Brady. Without their star quarterback, are the Patriots still Super Bowl contenders, let alone champions?
2. Bad Matchup
Last year, while they were again in the process of being handed the Lombardi Trophy prematurely, they were blown off the field by the New Orleans Saints 38-17. Those same Saints stand an awfully good chance of making it out of this year's NFC playoff bracket.
3. Lost Momentum
Right now the Patriots are on a roll. But it's a streaky sport; teams rattle off a series of impressive wins where they seem to be able to do no wrong, but also go into slumps where it seems like they'll never win again. Last year, the Broncos started the season 6-0 and finished out of the playoffs at 8-8.
Momentum can also be threatened by the playoff bye week where a team that had been playing great and clicking on all cylinders sits idle and gets some rust in the chains. If the Patriots' last couple of regular-season games hold no playoff significance, the effect could be even greater.
4. Opponent Game-Planning
During the regular season, coaches have to focus on their own teams. If their team isn't playing well, they're not going to win with consistency no matter who they're playing from week to week.
The playoffs are a different story.
The whole season is riding on a game against the next opponent. You can't afford not to win. Teams can and will spend a lot more time watching videotape.
Those that have coaching staffs that are adaptable and not too stubborn could even use an earlier loss to the Patriots to learn valuable things that will help them win in a rematch. The Giants did that in 2007, using insights from a previous game to shock the 18-0 Patriots in the Super Bowl, much to the embarrassment of all the NFL commentators who had given the Patriots the Lombardi Trophy in the preseason.
The Steelers, for one, can and should learn a lesson from those 2007 Giants.
5. One Bad Day
Yes, it's happened to the Patriots before. Yes, it's happened recently. Barely a month ago, in fact, the Patriots were steamrolled by...the Cleveland Browns?
Yes, they were beaten 34-14. What happened? Partly good game-planning as suggested above, by Eric Mangini, a former Belichick underling. But surely there had to be more.
What was Tom Brady's explanation? "We were out of sync all day. It was not a good day at all. As an offense, we didn't do much to advance the ball, and that includes the quarterback. If we play like we played today we are not going to beat anybody." Yes, bad days happen.
And in the playoffs, a bad day means you go home. With no Lombardi Trophy.
In spite of their impressive recent wins, I don't think this year's New England Patriots team is a class above the other elite teams in the league. They are not the team they once were. They are no longer a juggernaut of a team like the Steelers of the '70s, or the 49ers of the '80s or the Cowboys of the early '90s.
Between all of the factors above, I think this year's Patriots can and will be beaten.