FOXBOROUGH -- How good are the Patriots?
Moments after the team pounded the Redskins, 41-0, Saturday night, two NFL scouts were discussing what they witnessed at Gillette Stadium. The Patriots had turned in their second straight dominant performance, although the scouts reminded themselves not to read too much into it. It's the preseason, after all, and they noted how the Indianapolis Colts -- who posted a 26-6 regular-season record over the last two years -- had lost eight straight exhibition games before beating the Saints Saturday.
Fair enough, said ESPN analyst Joe Theismann, who yesterday morning was reviewing tape from the Patriots' impressive effort. He agreed that it's too early to declare the Patriots a juggernaut, but said it's a mistake to dismiss the exhibition excellence as irrelevant.
In attempting to answer the ``How good are the Patriots?" question, Theismann said he was reviewing the game to look for specific signs.
``What you look for in preseason is for the efficiency and effectiveness of the No. 1s, even if they're in for a series or two series," he said from his Cincinnati hotel room, where he was readying for tonight's Bengals-Packers game on ESPN. ``The Patriots game was an important one, because what you saw is a lot of what you're going to get during the season.
``I believe Tom Brady is the best quarterback in football today, and it starts with him. If you have Tom Brady, he'll make up for anything that might be missed on that side of the ball."
Brady has led the first-unit offense on 11 start-to-finish drives through three exhibition games, with the team scoring either a field goal or touchdown on nine of them. Brady is 35 of 54 for 404 yards, one touchdown, and no interceptions.
Former San Francisco 49er Randy Cross, who works for CBS and provides color commentary for the Patriots' regional exhibition broadcasts, said Brady might be playing at a higher level than what he's witnessed at any point over the last six-plus years. Brady's success comes not just from throwing the ball, but also identifying the defense and calling out the blocking assignments to his teammates by identifying the ``mike" linebacker at the line of scrimmage.
``You have a guy who is perceived to be at the top of his game in Brady who might not have gotten as close to being as good as can be," he said. ``One thing I notice is that he knows it and works at it, and that is so contagious."
The results have been solid defensively, as well, with the Patriots outscoring opponents, 71-3, over the last eight quarters of action.
``Their execution level the last two games, even though it's the preseason, is a little bit scary," said Cross, noting that the Patriots' scheme and coaching is among the best in the NFL.
But how much are these two games really reflective of New England's ability to contend?
As good as the team has looked over the last two contests, there are questions. Perhaps most pressing is will the Patriots be good enough to hold up over the course of a 16-game schedule without Deion Branch? Theismann believes Branch should report to camp.
``It looks to me like Bill Belichick said to Deion Branch that if you don't want to be here, fine, we'll just roll players in and out," he said. ``To them, it's not that big of a deal."
There is also the unknown of how rookie kicker Stephen Gostkowski (6 of 6 on field goals) will respond when the winds start swirling and the temperature drops below 40 degrees. Cross added that ``it might be mid-to-late January until anyone knows if he passes the test. He could be 20 for 20, looking great, and then it comes down to a big kick in the playoffs."
One change that caught the attention of Theismann and Cross is at inside linebacker, where Mike Vrabel and Junior Seau were paired Saturday night. They are bigger than Barry Gardner, Don Davis, and Monty Beisel, allowing them to shed blocks easier. Cross believes the Patriots can succeed with Seau in the middle.
``You mainly have to look at it in the context at this point of his career," Cross said. ``This defense and this team is probably the perfect place for him to be, better than Miami was, which needed starters, guys who could play two or three downs every single series. That's not the way Bill [Belichick] and Scott [Pioli] have put this team together. [Seau] can play first down, with some seconds. I think it was a very good pickup."
Theismann said Seau will have to adjust his style of play a bit.
``He's going to have to be more disciplined than he's been in the past, he's somewhat of a run-through guy," he said. ``I know in their defense, they're very conscious of trusting each other to be where they're supposed to be."
As for Belichick's thoughts on his own team, he noted that he didn't want to get ``overly positive" after the Patriots romped over the Cardinals, and had a similar theme yesterday when he said ``there were some things that were good, there were some other things that we need to improve on."
Theismann said there is one major factor working in the Patriots' favor.
``The first thing that makes you believe this football team has the ability to contend is their schedule," he said. ``In terms of won-loss record of opponents, it's one of the easiest in the National Football League."
Added Cross: ``You never handicap these teams nowadays, it's tough to look at because of injuries. But you'd be hard-pressed to make an argument that they've had a better team going into the season."