For the Patriots, at this stage of their existence under coach Bill Belichick, games like this are an opportunity. They offer a chance to prove that their reconstruction is well ahead of schedule, that the Patriots are to be taken as seriously now as they were in the past.Or as they will be, presumably, in the future.
Forget the Cleveland loss. Even at the peak of their dynasty under Belichick, the Pats had off weeks. This one just looked a little uglier than most. Late in the 2004 season, a Patriots team far better than this one (they were defending champions and 12-1) went into Miami to face a 2-11 Dolphins team far worse than these Browns. The result was a 29-28 defeat in which the Patriots collapsed late, a loss that most of us simply dismissed as a fluke.
In subsequent weeks, the Patriots proved us right. They won their final two games of the regular season to finish 14-2, then went 3-0 in the postseason to win a third Super Bowl title in four years.
Any team would stumble after getting popped in the jaw.
But the good ones reclaim their balance and hit back.
The problem this week, of course, is that the Patriots are due to meet the Steelers, who are indisputably among the elite teams in the conference. Pittsburgh went 3-1 without quarterback Ben Roethlisberger while he served a suspension. The team's only loss since his return was at the home of the defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints. The Patriots might be catching Pittsburgh at a good time - the Steelers have a short week and are banged up after Monday's win at Cincinnati - but the Steelers are more talented than the Pats, well coached, and will be playing at home before a national television audience.
Objectively speaking, this is a game the Steelers should win.
That doesn't mean they will.
But they should.
For the Patriots, in fact, winning this game is not of the utmost importance, even if you are among the relatively few who believed the Patriots were a legitimate Super Bowl contender entering this season. What's important is that the Patriots play well. Atlanta's win over the Baltimore Ravens last night put the Ravens at 6-3. A loss at Pittsburgh this week would leave the Patriots with the same record, and the Patriots hold a tiebreaking edge over Baltimore because they beat the Ravens this season.
The Patriots have yet to play Indianapolis. They have another game upcoming against the Jets. New England can lose to Pittsburgh and still finish with one of the top two records in the conference, which would assure the Patriots of a first-round bye in the playoffs.
Even with a defeat, the Patriots will still very much have their fate in their own hands, which brings us back to the original point.
What's important is the response, how the Patriots answer last week's obvious letdown. We can analyze the offense, defense and special teams play from last week as much as we want, but the simplest truth is that the Patriots never got off the plane. They didn't show up. Tom Brady looked like he was playing pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey and the defense got turned into road pizza. The Patriots lost their kicker to a season-ending injury.
And all of that happened as the Patriots approached perhaps their most challenging stretch of the season.
Coming into the season with these Patriots, we all knew the reality. The Patriots looked explosive on offense, but their defense was absurdly young. As a result, we were not going to get a real read on them, at the earliest, until the second half of this season. They are now precisely halfway through their schedule. The Patriots are a surprising and encouraging 6-2, just as they were last year, though they have undergone dramatic changes since. Counterproductive elements like Adalius Thomas were extracted. Ty Warren and Leigh Bodden got hurt. Randy Moss was traded. Now the Patriots are headed into Pittsburgh after a rather embarrassing loss at Cleveland last week, and we should remember that New England has played poorly in three of its four road games this year.
Logic suggests the Patriots should lose this game.
Which is why they can tell us so, so much by how hard - and how well - they fight for it.
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