Five weeks into the NFL season, what we know about the AFC and the Patriots' standing is basically this: We don't know.
Unlike last season, when the Patriots stormed to the top of the conference with a dominating offensive explosion, they are obviously no longer the lead horse in the race. They're in the pack, however, and considering that they're still in the process of reshaping themselves following the loss of their most important player - quarterback Tom Brady - that's basically all they can ask for at this point.
Linebacker Tedy Bruschi made the point that "it's very early" when assessing what the team's 3-1 record, and its important 30-21 victory over the 49ers Sunday, truly means.
In many ways, those words echo what Brady often has said - that the real season doesn't begin until Thanksgiving. Brady's point was that this is the time of year when teams must hang in the race, and if they can do that, then they have a chance to turn it on when it truly counts, in the homestretch.
Case in point: The Super Bowl champion Giants were 3-2 through five weeks last year, 6-2 at the halfway mark, and 7-4 at the end of November. But they ended up having the strongest finishing kick, as well as some good fortune with health.
With this in mind, how does one assess the AFC at this point?
"Wide open," one AFC general manager said yesterday. "Everybody knows why, and it's when Brady was announced as being lost for the year. Based on who he is, who the Patriots are, and their recent record, that has created what we're seeing right now."
About the only certainties are that the Bengals (0-5), Texans (0-4), and Chiefs (1-4) look to be failing in the hanging-around part of the race, and the Raiders (1-3) and Browns (1-3) are teetering on the edge.
Otherwise, it's a crowded field of 11 teams, all of whom have shown flashes of excellence but also have noticeable flaws.
This is significantly different from last year, when the Patriots and Colts established their dominance early.
The lead horse in this year's race is Tennessee, which at 5-0 has been one of the NFL's surprise teams. The Titans have been doing it primarily with defense, ranking first in points allowed (11.2 per game), which has complemented an offense that has adjusted nicely in the transition from erratic Vince Young to steady veteran Kerry Collins at quarterback.
While the Titans have been impressive, they haven't won over all the skeptics, primarily because they haven't faced elite teams. Their wins are over the Jaguars, Bengals, Texans, Vikings, and Ravens.
The Steelers, Bills, and Broncos are 4-1, but they've all shown vulnerabilities, too.
Pittsburgh has injury issues at running back, and poor protection has made quarterback Ben Roethlisberger look like a human piñata at times. The Bills were thumped, 41-17, by the Cardinals this week and lost quarterback Trent Edwards to a concussion. The Broncos' defense has been anything but consistent.
Elsewhere down the line, the Patriots (3-1) are still adjusting to life without Brady and are no longer an explosive offensive team. Like the Titans, they have wins against what are currently considered mid- to lower-tier clubs in the Chiefs, Jets, and 49ers.
The Colts, at 2-2, could easily be 0-4 if not for fourth-quarter comeback wins over the Vikings and Texans. Injuries ravaged their offensive line early, and they haven't found the offensive mojo that has defined them in recent years.
Who would have thought the 2-2 Dolphins, with back-to-back wins over the Patriots and Chargers, would be in the discussion? They've showed spunk in their Wildcat package with running back Ronnie Brown taking direct snaps, but they'll need to string together a few more wins to be taken seriously.
The Jets (2-2) have been up and down, but they have reason to believe after Brett Favre threw six touchdown passes two Sundays ago, and it's also too early to count out the Jaguars (2-3) and Chargers (2-3).
Add it all up, and it's a still-developing picture, one that looks quite different from this time last year.
"Right now, it's all scratching and clawing," the AFC general manager said. "We're all just trying to stay alive."
Mike Reiss can be reached at email@example.com