The New England Patriots earned their most impressive win of the season last Sunday, but the joy of a hard-fought victory was quickly marred by the solemn news that nose tackle Vince Wilfork was finished for the season with a torn Achilles.
But even in the face of this grim development, a collective sense of urgency remains in New England. The Patriots have something to prove.
While the other 4-0 teams (Saints, Broncos, Chiefs and Seahawks) have given us some dazzling performances this season, the Patriots really haven't given us anything dazzling. The Patriots are the lone unbeaten team that has yet to give us a taste of what their best football looks like.
And yet, for a team that hasn't shown much, the Patriots have somehow carried themselves to a 4-0 record. That's an insane achievement.
It's a testament to their physical and cerebral defense, the likes of which hasn't been seen in New England for quite a while. It's a strong, gritty defense which will keep the Patriots in the Super Bowl discussion.
Really, the discussion begins with cornerback Aqib Talib.
Now playing on a one-year contract, Talib's been silencing the league's best receivers with shutdown skills of a supreme nature. Through four games, he's accumulated 10 tackles, one forced fumble, seven passes defended (four against the Falcons) and a league-high four interceptions.
Talib's finest moment came last week against the Falcons in the Georgia Dome. Late in the game, the Patriots were clinging to a one-score lead at 30-23. Quarterback Matt Ryan was driving hard, but he was unable to score on three straight plays.
Talib's playmaking ability, in conjunction with his physicality and his swagger, certainly bring to mind former Patriots cornerback Ty Law. But on that fourth-down pass breakup against Matt Ryan and Roddy White, it's the memory of another legend which comes to the forefront.
That legend is former Patriots linebacker Willie McGinest.
Against the Colts in Week 13 of the 2003 season, the Patriots were hanging onto a slim 38-34 lead with 1:09 left in the game.
Quarterback Peyton Manning was driving hard at New England's goal line. On three straight plays, he walked away empty-handed. On fourth down, Colts running back Edgerrin James took the handoff and ran. McGinest got an arm around his legs and pulled him down at the 1-yard line to secure New England's victory.
ESPN writer John Clayton referred to that moment as "The stop heard 'round the NFL."
Ten years later, one could use the same expression to describe Talib's fourth-down stop in the Georgia Dome. And just as McGinest's stop became a defining play for the 2003 Patriots, Talib's stop has become a defining play for the 2013 Patriots.
The beauty of Talib is he thrives on tough competition. He and his secondary prevented Buffalo receiver Stevie Johnson, Tampa Bay receiver Vincent Jackson and Atlanta receiver Julio Jones from taking over three big games. He also intercepted Jets quarterback Geno Smith twice and forced a fumble in a big divisional game.
That's what Talib does. The better the opposing receivers, the better his defensive skills. That's the mark of an elite player. This guy doesn't want four victories; he wants a ring.
And right now, he's leading a defense that's given up a mere 57 total points to its opponents; that's only 10 points more than what Seattle's "unstoppable" defense has given up.
A ton of credit also goes to the defensive line.
Sophomore defensive end Chandler Jones has three sacks and eight quarterback hits. Rookie defensive end Michael Buchanan has two sacks and four quarterback hits; look for him to flash more stud tendencies as the season unfolds.
Undrafted rookie defensive tackle Joe Vellano sacked Matt Ryan in the third quarter, pushing the Falcons from 1st-and-10 to 2nd-and-23. Look for Vellano to take on a bigger role in Wilfork's absence. Same goes for linebacker Brandon Spikes and defensive linemen Marcus Forston, A.J. Francis and Chris Jones.
Veteran defensive tackle Tommy Kelly has assumed an Andre Carter-type role in his first season with the team. He's a beast and a leader, with the sort of old-school, dramatic toughness that you see in vintage NFL Films from the '70s and '80s.
Kelly's 1.5 sack total doesn't properly illustrate the extent to which he's affected the decision-making of opposing quarterbacks. He's notched five quarterback hits, and he's consistently worn down slingers all year with excellent pressure.
Kelly creates the sort of mayhem that a stat sheet doesn't register. In that sense, he's a lot like fallen warrior Vince Wilfork; you need to watch him play to understand his worth.
He played 59 of 76 snaps against the Falcons and helped to make Matt Ryan's night absolutely miserable.
Overall, between the studs and the near-studs, this is a defense to believe in.
The loss of Wilfork is a big blow to the team, no doubt about it. But remember, this is a team that doesn't draw its power or swagger from any one man. The proof came in 2008, when Tom Brady went down in the first game and backup quarterback Matt Cassel still led the team to 11 victories.
This is a team built to endure the worst-case scenario. They abide by a "next man up" mentality, from the quarterback to the defensive backs to the receivers to the defensive linemen.
Also, keep in mind this entire team is in the process of discovering itself. The offense gets most of the scrutiny after the drastic overhaul, but this defense is just as new.
We talk about Chandler Jones as if he's a veteran, but really it's only his second season in the league. It's Talib's first full season with the team. Same goes for Tommy Kelly. Michael Buchanan and cornerback Logan Ryan are rookies. Sophomore linebacker Dont'a Hightower has barely scratched the surface of his ability.
There's so much from this defense we haven't seen yet. They're still getting to know each other.
As much of a shock as it is to lose Wilfork, it's coming at a time when the Patriots are more than accustomed to shock. They're prepared for it. This whole season was destined to be a year of shock and awe and change, with or without Wilfork's injury.
Sitting pretty at 4-0, this they can handle.
Here's one other thought, on a somewhat tangential note which I'll bring full circle. It has to do with all the attention the high-powered Broncos are receiving.
Last Monday, ESPN insider Adam Schefter joined Dennis and Callahan's radio program to discuss Denver's dominance, saying:
Just think back to what you saw in 2007 [with the Patriots], you saw an unstoppable force, you saw a team that you knew was going to chew up and spit out the opposition every single Sunday, you saw a team that could not be stopped, could not be slowed, a team that was going to put up numbers, stats, yards, everything, and Denver is the same kind of offensive outfit right now. I don't know how you stop them.
What's [Manning] thrown? [16 touchdown passes and no interceptions] If he throws an incomplete pass, it's a rarity. The football doesn't touch the ground.
There are so many guys [who can beat you]. You wanna take away [receiver] Demaryius Thomas? No problem, [receiver] Wes Welker beats you. You wanna take away Wes Welker? No problem, [receiver] Eric Decker beats you. Wanna take away Decker? No problem, [tight end] Julius Thomas beats you. You wanna take those guys away? The running backs are good enough to be able to run the ball.
It looks like, right now, they can't be slowed down.
Someone at some point will be able to take them on, I'm sure, circumstances change as the year goes on, injuries happen, dynamics change, but right now, they look unbeatable.
What Schefter said is true. But it's the last part of what he said which is truest. Someone will to take them on. Circumstances do change.
The 2001 Patriots hacked their way through the regular season and the playoffs with a backup quarterback and stopped the unstoppable Rams in the Super Bowl.
The 2007 Patriots finished with a 16-0 record and looked absolutely unbeatable until they were beaten in the Super Bowl. The 2007 Giants, who finished at 10-6 and were led by a quarterback who threw 20 interceptions, were the ones who won that Lombardi Trophy.
The 2011 Giants, who lost four straight games during the season and finished with a mediocre record of 9-7, won the Super Bowl again.
The amazing 2012 Broncos, led by a nearly flawless Peyton Manning, did not win a single playoff game. Prior to that, Manning led an unstoppable offense in Indianapolis for years, but he was regularly stopped when it mattered most and he only won one ring.
The point is, the NFL regular season is as misleading as it is thrilling. Looking unstoppable in Week 4 means nothing. Looking unstoppable at any point is meaningless, unless you're talking about the final few minutes or seconds of the Super Bowl.
At the end of the day, the Broncos are as dangerous as their 4-0 record insists, but the Patriots are even more dangerous than their 4-0 record insists. The reason is, we've seen the Broncos at their best, but we haven't glimpsed one iota of what this Patriots team is capable of. All we know is their defense is keeping them in the Super Bowl discussion.
When Brady's offense catches up with the defense, this will be an extremely scary team.