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All the way back, halfway home

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff  November 8, 2009 08:23 PM

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Christopher L. Gasper

FOXBOROUGH -- It hasn't always been pretty.

And with an upcoming schedule featuring trips to Indianapolis and New Orleans and a road rematch with Miami, it's probably not going to be. But the Patriots are exactly where they should be at the halfway mark.

Forget the concern surrounding Tom Brady's left knee, the questioning of the running game, the paucity of a pass rush, and the lack of a third receiver. Every team has blemishes. That's the reality of the parity-obsessed NFL. The reality of the Patriots' season is that they're a championship-caliber team, and they proved it today in a critical 27-17 win over the division rival Dolphins.

After silencing Miami's Joey Porter, declawing the Wildcat, and surviving flesh wounds from the Pat White-led Pistol formation, the Patriots are in the driver's seat in the AFC East division at 6-2, with a 2-1 divisional record.

They say objects in your rear view mirror may be closer than they appear, but the Patriots' two-game AFC East lead is the opposite. Porter can say the Dolphins are still the division champions because they won it last year, but not for much longer.

It's New England's to lose.

The Jets are 4-4 overall, but they can finish no better than .500 in AFC East play after a 1-3 start in the division. The Dolphins, who suffered their first divisional defeat (3-1), dropped to 3-5 and at best can split the season series with the Patriots. Factor in that Miami still has games with the Patriots, Pittsburgh, and Houston, and there is at least one more loss on their schedule.

The Patriots host the Jets at home on Nov. 22 in a grudge match that follows New England's annual pilgrimage to Indianapolis next Sunday.

The Patriots control their playoff destiny from here on out.

"Yeah, as long as you win your division games, and you win some other big games and conference games, you control a lot of your own destiny," said guard Logan Mankins. "Those are important games for us to win. If you just look at last year we lost a lot of those games, and that's why we were home in January."

Now, the Patriots are halfway home in 2009 and looking like a contender for a first-round bye and/or homefield advantage throughout the playoffs.

Miami played its game, using the Wildcat and the Pistol to generate a pair of touchdowns, the latter of which was a 1-yard touchdown pass from running back Ronnie Brown to tight end Joey Haynos that capped a 16-play, 66-yard third-quarter drive that swallowed up two-thirds of the third quarter (10 minutes, 9 seconds) and put Miami up, 17-16.

However, all it took was 1:36 and Moss posterizing Miami rookie corner Vontae Davis on a 71-yard touchdown, and suddenly the Patriots were back on top, 24-17, before the quarter was over. Moss, who had six catches for 147 yards, took a 10-yard crossing route from Brady, raced to the outside, gave Davis the Heisman, and took it to the house, his eighth touchdown against Miami in five games as a Patriot.

The good news for the Patriots was that, as they did against the Tennessee Titans and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, they moved the ball at will against Miami, racking up more than 400 yards of total offense (432) for the third straight game and penetrating Dolphin territory on seven of 10 possessions.

The other three were two punts from the Patriots' 48 and a Brady interception on a deep ball intended to Moss at the Miami 7. The bad news was they kicked four field goals and went 1 for 4 in the red zone.

The margin for error is going to be smaller next Sunday against Peyton Manning and the 8-0 Colts, who are averaging 27.1 points per game (the Patriots are averaging 28.1). Brady, who had his third straight 300-yard game and franchise-best 27th, going 25 of 37 for 332 yards against Miami, knows that to leave Lucas Oil Stadium with a win you have to put the ball in the end zone.

"I think the one thing about that game is you've got to play a great game to win," said Brady, who threw his 16th touchdown pass of the season Sunday, putting him on pace for 32 for the season. "You can't go out there and play your B-game because you won't beat those guys. They're good. ...Obviously, they score a lot of points. They run it. They throw it. They have very good special teams. So, we've got to match them. We've got to do the same thing, and this year on the road, you know we've had a couple of good first halves and not so good second halves. We're going to need to play a four-quarter game."

Ah, yes, the road. The one caveat regarding the Patriots credentials as a contender is their lack of a signature road win.

Home has not been a problem. The Patriots are a perfect 5-0 at Gillette Stadium and amazingly have never lost a game there in which Brady, Moss and Wes Welker all suited up there (16-0, including playoffs).

However, at some point the Patriots are going to have to beat an elite -- or at least a good -- team on the road to get where they want to go. They have a shot against the Colts next Sunday, another one in New Orleans against the Saints later this month, and the second meeting with Miami on Dec. 6.

If they don't do it during the regular-season, then they won't have homefield in the playoffs and they'll have to do it then.

London? That gets an asterisk, because it was A) against the Bucs and B) not really a road game.

"It was a pretty neutral crowd. It was a good win for us on the road, but it was definitely a neutral site game for us," said Brady.

Say what you will about Manning and the Colts, but they've won four out of the last five with the Patriots, including last year's Brady-less tractor pull. This year it could be a track meet.

The Patriots may win that game. They may not. But they're a contender again. You can take my word for it.

Or ask the Dolphins.

"Tom is still here playing at the typical Tom Brady level. Belichick is still here. There are a lot of players that are still in place, and they added other great players. It's always a tough team," said Miami outside linebacker Jason Taylor. "They're a very good football team."

News, analysis and commentary from Boston.com's staff writers and contributors, including Zuri Berry and Erik Frenz.

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