It certainly seems like more than six weeks ago that the Patriots were 3-3 and tied with every other team in the division. But now, with Week 12 in the books, New England is comfortably situated atop the AFC East, 8-3, three games clear of the Dolphins with five games to play.
And even though the Pats face a couple tough matchups down the stretch -- the Texans on Dec. 10, the 49ers the week after that -- there's no reason to think that they won't cruise to another division title. The only question left unresolved: will New England earn a first-round playoff bye. As it stands, they're behind the Texans and the Ravens for one of the top two spots in the AFC. And while Houston's got the top seed pretty much sewn up, Baltimore won't have an easy path to home-field advantage. Their remaining schedule: Steelers, at Redskins, Broncos, Giants, at Bengals.
Not that it much matters. The way the Patriots are playing right now, their game is portable. The running game has been a pleasant surprise all season, and Tom Brady is … well, Tom Brady. And now, the defense is coming along too. Recently acquired cornerback Aqib Talib has bolstered the secondary, rookie Alfonzo Dennard has been a pleasant surprise, and Patrick Chung is finally healthy -- not that it mattered Thursday against the Jets; Steve Gregory did all the heavy lifting thanks in no small part a horrid Jets team.
But that seems to be the Patriots way -- a lot of hard work and a good amount of luck. Players who had so-so careers elsewhere treat Foxboro as their fountain of youth. And while Gregory's not exactly old -- this is just his seventh NFL season -- he appreciates what it means to play in New England.
“Just a first-class organization,’’ he said recently via the Boston Globe. “It’s an organization that wins football games and you know is going to be there at the end, pretty much year in and year out. It’s a situation where you can go and really make a run at things.’’
Rodney Harrison, Corey Dillon, Wes Welker and Randy Moss would all agree with these sentiments. And while the Pats haven't won a Super Bowl since 2004, they've missed the playoffs once since 2003 and that was in 2008 after Tom Brady was lost for the year with a torn ACL.
Gregory, who signed with the Pats this offseason after six years with the Chargers, finally feels comfortable in this new defense.
“I feel fully in the swing of things now, things are rolling,’’ he said. “We still have to keep grinding away, get better. We did a lot of good things (against the Jets) but as always, there will still be room for improvement.’’
A hip injury kept Gregory sidelined for a month starting in Week 4 but he's back in the lineup and is becoming more comfortable with each snap.
“We’re building a lot of chemistry back there,’’ he told the Globe. “The guys are really starting to get to know one another. I think our communication and stuff has really been growing and we’re starting to put it together, so it’s always constantly working and trying to become better and that’s one of the things we’re trying to focus on."
For the first time in a long time, the Pats could have something resembling a defense as they prepare for the stretch run. Whether they earn home-field advantage or not, this is welcome news.