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After a week off, time to turn it on

For the past couple of seasons, the AFC hasn't been the American Football Conference, it has been the Patriots' Football Conference, and likewise the Belichicksters have treated the NFL like the New England Football League.

But New England's total dominance -- a 34-4 record and two Super Bowl championships -- is over, right? After all, the Patriots have lost more games in their first six contests this season than they did in either 2003 or 2004.

And since Robert Kraft hoisted the Lombardi Trophy during last February's victory parade, Tedy Bruschi had a stroke, Romeo Crennel moved near Lake Erie, Charlie Weis answered the call of Touchdown Jesus, Ty Law left for Yankee country, Ted Johnson's head trauma forced him to retire, and Rodney Harrison's left knee was crushed.

Undoubtedly, without the aforementioned, the Patriots would not have won Super Bowls XXXIX and XXXVIII. The question is, will they win Super Bowl XL without them?

Since winning the season opener against the Raiders, the Patriots have been unsteady, losing a game every other week. They hope the bye week gives them time to heal from a host of injuries and improve in areas in which their performance has been below their established standard.

''There's a lot of football left to be played and at this point right now, I don't think anyone can say who's going to be in the playoffs and who's not," defensive end Richard Seymour said. ''If anybody has a chance at postseason action, we're definitely a team that can do that."

The first bit of good news is Bruschi returned to practice last week and could be activated for Sunday's game against Buffalo.

Secondly, the Patriots play in the AFC East, which, like the NFC North, is a division in which a 3-3 record gets you first place. New England (3-3) is the only AFC East squad with a winning record and top-tier quarterback. Win the division, make the playoffs.

Finally, the Patriots' schedule is considerably easier the rest of the season.

While the Patriots played on the road four times in their first six games, three of their next four are at home. They just finished a stretch of five games against playoff contenders, with four of the games on the road against teams with winning records, but only three of their final 10 games are against teams that currently have winning records -- Indianapolis, Kansas City, and Tampa Bay.

The Patriots' remaining schedule:

Buffalo (Sunday) -- The Bills could have taken over first place in the division yesterday but were rolled at Oakland, and haven't won a road game all season.

Indianapolis (Nov. 7) -- The Patriots have a six-game winning streak against the Colts, dating to 2001, including two playoff victories.

At Miami (Nov. 13) -- Bill Belichick's first game against his former defensive coordinator, Nick Saban.

New Orleans (Nov. 20) -- The Patriots have faced the reeling Saints only twice in the past 10 years, winning both games.

At Kansas City (Nov. 27) -- With New England, Belichick is 3-0 against the Chiefs.

New York Jets (Dec. 4) -- The Jets, who play at Atlanta tonight, average a measly 13 points a game.

At Buffalo (Dec. 11) -- The Patriots have lost to the Bills only once in the last nine matchups -- the Lawyer Milloy debacle.

Tampa Bay (Dec. 17) -- Belichick's Patriots have played the Bucs just once, a 21-16 loss in his first game with New England.

At NY Jets (Dec. 26) -- The Patriots have won six of the last seven in the series, including four in a row.

Miami (Jan. 1) -- The Dolphins, who topped the Patriots last December in South Florida, have yet to win away from home this season.

As favorable as the schedule appears to be, the Patriots know they must play better.

Indianapolis (7-0), Denver (5-2), Cincinnati (5-2), Jacksonville (4-2), and Kansas City (4-2) all have better records, meaning the Patriots would have to pass a number of teams to get a first-round bye.

The team returns to practice Wednesday.

''I think that everybody . . . every player, every coach, starting with me, feels accountable for what we've done -- some good, some not so good -- and is committed to make it better," Belichick said. ''We need to take that and make those appropriate changes and improvements and they need to transfer to the field and that's what we're all trying to do."

Jerome Solomon can be reached at jsolomon@globe.com

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