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Resilient Patriots built to last

The Patriots are 5-2 and leading the AFC East despite playing without about a third of their expected starters. What does this say about how the rest of this year is likely to go? Not much, but it says a lot about the makeup of their team and what its approach likely will be.

The NFL schedule is four distinct chapters, plus an epilogue if you stay healthy enough or get hot enough to make the playoffs. What happens in the first month very often says little about how the last month will go because teams' natures change radically during the season. How the first half of a season plays out seems to give few hints about how the second half will unfold because this is a painful marathon being run by large men whose bodies are already less than they were when it began in July.

This is true not only for the Patriots but for everyone in their tightly bunched division and throughout the league. After the opening game of the season the Buffalo Bills looked unbeatable and the Patriots were in disarray. Six weeks later, the Bills trail New England by a game and had to search madly for nearly a month to locate their offense before it reappeared Sunday against the same Washington team that beat New England. So it goes. The past is prologue, but to what exactly?

"I don't think you ever look at a team after six games and say, `This is a team going to the Super Bowl,' " Dolphins running back Ricky Williams cautioned after Miami's 19-13 loss to the Patriots at Pro Player Stadium Sunday. "The way we look at it is we're going to be a different team come December. Hopefully a lot better team. We just have to keep getting better."

That's a noble thought for Williams, but that has not been the Dolphins' history. When the wind picks up and the temperature drops in a lot of NFL cities, the Dolphins invariably start slip-sliding away.

The opposite has been true for the Patriots, so a fast start would seem to bode well, especially as they slowly get back some of the players lost to injury. Considering those injuries, it has been a remarkable season that appeared to be heading toward disaster after the debacle in Buffalo. Even the perpetually upbeat Tom Brady conceded that to be 5-2 today is beyond his expectations.

"No, we didn't [expect to be 5-2] with what happened in Week 1," Brady said. "We're just taking advantage of some opportunities and doing a better job of taking care of the ball. We're doing a better job on third down, doing an excellent job on defense, protecting the running backs and protecting me back there.

"It's a cumulative thing and I think it has to do with everyone on the team. This was a big win [in Miami] because we haven't beaten them down here in a while, but at the same time it's only one win. Just like when you lose it's only one loss."

While what Brady said is true, the fact that New England has been able to survive the loss of so many players counts for something. It means they are a resilient and resourceful group that has survived much and will benefit from the experience.

They know they can count on themselves from top to bottom now. This does not mean they can be successful long term if they can't run the football, as they could not against Miami, or that they can rely week after week on winning without their offense putting up more points than it has in the first seven games. Some things have to improve or further problems will surface, yet that is where the words of Williams echo positively.

In December the Patriots will be a different team, as will the Jets, the Bills, and the Dolphins. What kind of team they become remains unclear, but what their early success has been based on does not go away with the passage of time. It has not been a matter of overwhelming offense or withering defense, although there have been moments of both. They have won for other reasons, ones that speak well of them.

They are 5-2 because they have refused to give in to self-pity, self-abuse, or selfishness. They are 5-2 not because they have been without problems; they are 5-2 despite their problems.

Those are signs of a team that is not going to go quietly into the night when the weather turns cold and the skies are black before dinner time. Such success is not based on the legs of one back or the arm of one passer or the speed and tackling ability of one linebacker or the pass rush of one defensive lineman.

Individual skills are essential for team success but they do not last long in a league where 50 or 60 car wrecks occur each Sunday in every stadium. What does survive is faith in each other and the knowledge that no matter who is limping, someone else is not. What lasts is the conviction that if you just fight for one more round, you never know what might happen but you fully understand what will happen if you don't.

The Patriots may not be the best or most well-balanced team in the NFL, but they are not unlike the Red Sox. Although they may be beaten at times, they have repeatedly declined to accept defeat as the logical conclusion to a string of bad breaks or bad luck, and that is a mind-set that has lasting value.

In a league where everything is even or nearly so, attitude and effort win as often as talent. Few teams can save themselves from themselves because this has become a league where no one is great, which means everyone is good. Or at least good enough.

In such a league, the thin line between victory and defeat is often as simple as faith in yourself and an unwavering willingness to fight for a few more plays and see what happens. The Patriots have become such a team in the face of their early-season adversities. That may not mean this season goes the way they hope, but it does mean that if you are one of their opponents, getting them out of your face will not be an easy task.

Those are traits to be admired in life and in pro football because unlike speed, athleticism, or simple good fortune, they don't disappear when the wind blows or someone's ankle is swollen or someone else's shoulder is aching.

They are traits that last. So will the Patriots, as long as they don't forget that.

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