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For the Patriots, league is there for the taking

Posted by Gary Dzen, Boston.com Staff  November 26, 2012 09:26 AM

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mazzsecondary.jpgDevin McCourty (left) and Steve Gregory are part of an improved Patriots secondary (Globe Staff Photo/Jim Davis)

While you were eating, the ever-changing NFL continued to turn on its ear. Colin Kaepernick is in. Matt Forte is out. And what has passed is nothing more than prelude to what has become one of the more unpredictable NFL seasons in recent memory.

And the Patriots, as usual, are right in the thick of it, having undergone their own metamorphosis as we creep into the all-important month of December.

In fact, the AFC may again be theirs for the taking.

The NFL has no dominant teams this year, folks, and therein rests the beauty of fascinating final month to this season, in New England an everywhere else. With Thursday's 49-19 undressing of the New York Jets on national television, the Patriots continued to show signs of improvement, particularly in a secondary bolstered by the acquisition of Aqib Talib. Meanwhile, the Houston Texans have escaped with consecutive victories over (gasp) Jacksonville and Detroit, all while the battered Pittsburgh Steelers, minus Ben Roethlisberger, turned the ball over eight times in a loss at Cleveland.

The difference between Baltimore and New England? A conversion on fourth-and 29. And don't look now, but Andrew Luck and the Indianapolis Colts could face Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos in the first round of the playoffs.

Get the picture? The conference - for that matter, the league - is in a state of competitive anarchy. And if Bill Belichick and the Patriots are as smart as we all think they are, they will survey the landscape and reinforce a mentality that has existed in Foxboro for the better part of the last dozen years.

Why not us?

The Patriots, as we all know, have their flaws. many of you still rightfully question the New England defense, especially, the secondary, and you have your reasons. Based on defensive passer rating - that metric by which the football dorks swear - New England still has the seventh worst pass defense in the NFL, a number that is hardly inconsequential.

And yet, we all know that trends rule the NFL, and the last two weeks have revealed, if nothing else, an improved New England secondary. Luck had a 67.2 rating against New England in Week 11, the lowest of any quarterback against the Patriots this year. And in Thursday's laugher, New York Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez posted a first-half number of 59.1, by which point the Patriots had built a 35-3 lead.

For sure, the competition has been getting worse. But we can also say that the Patriots are getting better.

Earlier this season, following a dicey Week 7 win against Jets, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick was asked why his team had not improved on defense. Belichick's answer? That the Patriots had gotten better. Belichick then clarified that every team has improved since the start of the season, and what the Patriots should be concerned with was their rate of improvement.

Simply put, the defense wasn't getting it. At least not quickly enough. Then came the blowout win over St. Louis in London and the subsequent Talib trade.

Where the Patriots are now feels light years from where they were three weeks ago, and rest assured that every NFL coach now understands the urgency. Especially in a parity-driven league like the NFL, December is the season equivalent of the fourth quarter. This is when winners and losers are determined. The New Orleans Saints may have lost to the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday, but the New Orleans defense, like the Patriots, is playing better than it has at any other point this season. Meanwhile, San Francisco is worried enough about its offense that head coach Jim Harbaugh effectively has benched starter Alex Smith - no matter what excuse Harbaugh gives - for a second-year player with little experience.

In the NFL, December is the time to make final adjustments and implementations, because everyone knows what is at stake. A few weeks ago, Atlanta and Houston looked to be on a collision course for New Orleans. Now, both clubs look far more vulnerable.

From the start, in some ways, Weeks 14 and 15 have hung over this Patriots season like a final exam worth 75 percent of the grade. They still do. Following Sunday's upcoming game at Miami - another affair on which the Patriots must not sleep - New England will face, in a seven-day span, the arguable class of each conference. The Texans are 10-1. The Niners are 8-2-1. And short of the Denver Broncos, now tied with Patriots at 8-3, New England has not beaten a team this season deemed to be a legitimate Super Bowl threat.

Of course, in the NFL, those wins wouldn't mean anything at the moment, anyway.

Because in this league, even during the regular season, how you finish is far, far more important than how you begin.

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Updated: Mar 1, 07:24 AM

About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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