Before Patriots players left for their bye weekend, coach Bill Belichick told them the NFL season was like a horse race.
His message was simple: The team should feel good about breaking out of the starting gate with a 4-1 record, but he reminded the players that no one remembers who leads the race early, only who crosses the finish line first.
Two national ``handicappers" -- NBC studio analyst Jerome Bettis and ESPN's Ron Jaworski -- acknowledged they weren't expecting the Patriots to be among the lead pack at this stage.
``I am pretty surprised, considering the wide receivers they lost," said Bettis, the former Pittsburgh Steeler. ``To me, the most impressive part of the Patriots is that they realize what they have, and what they don't have, and they game-plan within that. A lot of teams will struggle with their identity when they're not the same football team, asking `What are we?' I don't see that from the Patriots.
``I see a team that is transforming from a pass-dominated team to a run-dominated team. Sometimes teams will fight those type of changes, but they seem to embrace them, and are willing to change overnight."
Jaworski isn't as surprised the Patriots are 4-1, because he believes they know how to win, but he wouldn't have predicted that record knowing how the offense has performed.
``I think they're winning with a lackluster offense right now," he said. ``It's clear that they are aware of their lack of vertical game. I don't see a vertical threat on the team right now, and if you ask any safety the thing that scares him the most, it's speed. So when you don't see that on the other side, you don't have to play as deep. I'm surprised they've been able to win without having that element."
CBS analyst Phil Simms doesn't disagree, but he believes that's the beauty of the NFL. Every team has a flaw, especially at this time of year. He feels the key is how those flaws are addressed as the horses in contention reach the latter parts of the race.
``I think the NFL season is the equivalent of five seasons, and we're about ready to go through the first one," he said. ``We all need more time to evaluate and see. Look at the Pittsburgh Steelers, they floundered around for three quarters of last year, got hot, and won the Super Bowl.
``I've always believed this, and I've played on Super Bowl teams and watched it all, the thing you want to do now is keep trying to find yourself, keep finding a way to win games, and just hope that you hit your groove when it counts. The thing that I have a hard time with is that everyone wants the distinct answers right now. They say New England is winning, but it's not impressive. Not impressive? It seems like people expect greatness all the time and I'm not sure they understand how difficult it is at all levels in the NFL."
So what does Simms see when he looks at the Patriots?
``I see a really big football team that has a lot of extremely impressive parts to it," he said. ``Do I see a finished product? Absolutely not. Will it improve? I'm fairly confident, knowing the history and the coach. Is the team in transition a little? That might be a good way of putting it. But they've kept it in order, with some tough money decisions and adding some youth. They're making a transition from a big-time Super Bowl team but still maintaining their place as one of the top teams in the league. That, in this day and age, is hard to do and might be impossible."
Simms agreed that one of the primary on-field areas of concern is the Patriots' outside-the-numbers passing game, because ``the NFL is about big plays."
``I get the sense they are trying to evolve into a strategy to make big plays with their outside people," Simms said. ``I kind of keep waiting to see Chad Jackson and where his role fits. But I go back to the fact that it's still early. I think it has a chance to happen, and the big thing is that the team is not fighting from behind now [record-wise], which is huge. They still have room for error, and I see the potential for all their weaknesses to be addressed."
Jaworski has broken down some of the Patriots' game films, and he doesn't see one of those weaknesses being quarterback Tom Brady, despite Brady completing only 54 percent of his passes, one of the lowest marks in the league.
``When you look on tape, there is nothing wrong with Tom Brady," said Jaworski, a former quarterback. ``If there is a problem, it's that the windows to throw into are a lot smaller. It's more difficult when your only way to stretch the field is horizontally, not vertically.
``I think it does take time to develop a chemistry with the new receivers. You have to alter your offense a bit, but I wouldn't say you can't win. I think of Tampa Bay winning the Super Bowl in 2002 and they did it with Jon Gruden being very creative, with a lot of picks and rubs, cluster sets. He would free people up by design. You're seeing more of that in this [Patriots] offense. They're doing a good job designing plays tailored to the strength of their players."
Before yesterday's games, Bettis broke down his AFC contenders into two groups, putting the Patriots in the ``A class" along with the Ravens, Bengals, Chargers, Broncos, and Colts. Bettis said the ``B class" consists of the Jaguars, Chiefs, and Steelers.
Entering yesterday's action, Jaworski had the Chargers on the rise, and the Colts on the decline.
``The Colts' inability to stop the run has to be a concern," he said. ``Unless they shore up that front seven, this could be another one-and-done for them. On the other side, I think San Diego is really starting to get it together. As for the Patriots, I don't think their overall talent level is where it has been, but I'm not saying they can't get there. That defense is still very solid and I have such great respect for the organization. It's hard to keep a run like that going."
Simms wonders if the Patriots are victims of their success.
``I watched the New England-Miami game and I heard rumblings in the crowd, even when Tom Brady was getting some passes knocked down," he said. ``I sensed that people were thinking, `The Dolphins are 1-3 and we should beat them by 50.' I think New England is in a tough place. They've won three Super Bowls, but it doesn't seem like winning is good enough, they have to win with style, convincingly, to keep people happy. I guess I'd ask, `What does everyone expect?' "
Mike Reiss can be reached at email@example.com