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First among equals

Posted by Tom Wilcox November 6, 2008 05:54 AM

The fact the Patriots are in first place without Tom Brady may come as somewhat of a surprise, but the most unexpected development at the season’s midpoint is the rapid improvement of New England’s main competition.

A year after the Bills, Jets, and Dolphins combined to go 12-36, all three teams are at .500 or better, and the AFC East is the strongest division in the conference.

“We have played two of the teams. We had a very competitive game with the Jets down there and got beat up by Miami pretty good,” said Patriots coach Bill Belichick. “I have kind of kept an eye on Buffalo. They have played a lot of teams that we have played, so we have seen them to some degree. But now is really when we start zeroing in on them.”

The Patriots have won five straight division titles, and Sunday’s game against the Bills begins a run of three straight games in the AFC East. They host the Jets next Thursday, then travel to Miami on Nov. 23.

New England entered the season with statistically the easiest schedule in football, mainly because of the six division games, but it certainly hasn’t worked out that way. The AFC East’s cumulative 19-13 record is tops in the conference.

New head coach Tony Sparano and new executive vice president of football operations Bill Parcells have breathed new life into the Dolphins. At 4-4, Miami has already quadrupled its win total from a year ago. The Fish thumped the Patriots at Gillette Stadium on Sept. 21.

After going 10-6 and making the playoffs two seasons ago in Eric Mangini’s first year, the Jets regressed in 2007 and went 4-12. The addition of Brett Favre has reinvigorated them, and last week’s win in Buffalo created a three-way tie for first in the division at 5-3.

The Bills had the shortest trip back to respectability after going 7-9 last season, and they may pose the Patriots’ biggest threat for a sixth straight division crown.

“We certainly knew about the Jets and Miami, that wasn’t any surprise,” said Belichick. “The way that Buffalo has been built, with the job that Dick [Jauron] has done there and getting a lot of young talented players on their team … It doesn’t surprise me that they have won five games.”

Sunday’s game is doubly important because of possible head-to-head tiebreakers and the team’s division record. The Patriots are 1-1 in the AFC East, the Bills are 0-2, and both Miami and New York are 2-1.

Everything but the W
Although the Patriots came up three points short against the Colts, Belichick wasn’t just giving the same old clichés when he said: “I thought overall we played a good football game but came up a couple plays short to the Colts. I thought we played very well in all areas.”
New England beat Indianapolis in almost every statistical category. The Patriots had more first downs (22-18), more total yards (342-301), more rushing yards (140-47), and greater time of possession (34:24-25:36).

Line at full strength
Right tackle Nick Kaczur returned to the starting lineup on Sunday after missing the previous two games with a right ankle injury. Stephen Neal also started at right guard for the first time this season after being activated from the PUP list three weeks ago.

With Kaczur and Neal joining Matt Light (left tackle), Logan Mankins (left guard), and Dan Koppen (center), it was the first time this season the unit that played the majority of the snaps last season and helped the Patriots set so many offensive records was intact.

The Patriots ran for 140 yards against the Colts, an average of 4.4 yards per carry, and didn’t allow a single sack for the first time this year.

In the book
With seven catches against the Colts, Wes Welker joined Jimmy Smith (2001, Jaguars) as the only players in NFL history to have six or more catches in each of the first eight games of the season. … Rookie linebacker Jerod Mayo was named the NFL’s defensive rookie of the month in October. He is the first Patriots player to earn rookie of the month honors since wide receiver Deion Branch in September 2002. … Kicker Stephen Gostkowski was named AFC special teams player of the month after making nine of 10 field goals in October.

Tom Wilcox covers the Patriots for OT and can be reached at twilcox@globe.com

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Charles P. Pierce writes for the Boston Globe Magazine. A long-time sportswriter and columnist, Pierce is a frequent guest on national TV and radio.
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