There are no elite teams in the NFL this year.
Right up until the Michael Vick Show last night, the notion dominated the day's NFL discussion no matter the medium -- harried postgame television analysis, sports radio yammering, even some reporter buddies chiming in on Twitter. You got the sense that those ubiquitous power-polls would have a 10-way tie for first, the consensus being that there is no consensus.
In Peter King's team rankings -- I should be clear, not of sugary overpriced beverages and preferred modes of travel, but of actual NFL teams -- the top spot was left vacant. It's a clever device, I guess, though the word vacant, perhaps appropriately, also implies an absence of analytical thinking.
The 6-2 Patriots overwhelmed the 6-2 Pittsburgh Steelers -- beat them at their own game, really, beat them up convincingly in their own yard -- and yet the performance is not a suggestion of their potential and/or burgeoning dominance, but confirmation that parity has come to the NFL like never before.
Funny how that works.
I can't be the only one who strongly suspects the talking point would have been different Monday had the Pittsburgh Steelers been the maulers rather than the maulees Sunday night. The Steel Curtain is back. Another step toward redemption for Big Ben. You know, Merril, they have won two Super Bowls since the Patriots last won one. Click.
I'm not denying the rest of this NFL season -- and the postseason to come -- is going to be wide open and wildly unpredictable. Taking a quick glance at the standings, there are at least six AFC teams (Patriots, Jets, Ravens, Steelers, Colts, and Chargers) I could see playing in Dallas in January, and five from the NFC (Giants, Eagles, Packers, Falcons, Saints) with legitimate Super Bowl aspirations. That's 11 teams, more than a third of the league. Somewhere, Pete Rozelle nods in approval, then wonders who this Roger Goodell thinks he's fooling with his make-it-up-on-the-fly justice. (We like to think that's how it would go, anyway.)
Even if you're skeptical that the Patriots are the NFL's elite team at the moment, this much is certain. There is absolutely more elite talent -- or potentially elite talent -- on this roster than there was perceived to be just a month or two ago.
We'll begin with the obvious. Given the circumstances and context -- a pivotal game on the road against a talented, respected, fierce longtime rival -- that has to be one of the top five performances of Tom Brady's career.
He's had better statistical games, chucking six TDs against the Dolphins in '07 or playing practically flawlessly in the snow-globe blowout of the uninterested Titans last year. And he's earned maybe, what, a dozen more meaningful victories than this in his career where his stat line didn't do his performance justice? Sunday was the perfect amalgam of the two. He was spectacular statistically, and even more spectacular viscerally. If you've ever seen a finer throw than the first touchdown pass to Rob Gronkowski, please, send along the video.
And let's stop with the nonsense about Brady not being emotional. Yeah, he's become a little bit more Joe Cool than he was in his giddy NFL youth, when he exulted on every touchdown and obliviously pounded on a bewildered Drew Bledsoe's shoulder pads before Super Bowl XXXVI. But unemotional? Tell that to the hole he stared through Joey Galloway's head last year.
Yet Sunday night, it wasn't just the QB 12 show. Patrick Chung was the best safety on the field. (If only he had a shampoo endorsement to enhance his profile and exaggerate his skills.) Cris Collinsworth casually mentioned that Devin McCourty looks like a future Pro Bowl corner, an accurate, astute statement, yet one we wannabe draft gurus never would have believed back in April. Logan Mankins has somehow returned in his usual ferocious form. Jerod Mayo is the linebacker we hoped he'd become two years ago, before a knee injury stunted his sophomore season. Rob Gronkowski is a beast. Vince Wilfork's interior dominance is not a surprise, but his versatility makes him even more valuable. Alge Crumpler, once Vick's favorite target in Atlanta, has reinvented himself as a blocker so effective that he practically willed James Harrison invisible.
Now, despite the giddiness, I'm not saying this all adds up to confetti shower February 6 at Cowboys Stadium. Each Sunday brings more information about this team, and we'll have an even better gauge on their status at roughly 7 p.m. Sunday. A win over Peyton Manning and the Colts would be a pretty damn convincing confirmation of their status even to whatever naysayers remain. And I do understand the perception that the Patriots have something left to prove, that they can't stand alone above the field when the memory of a shocking loss to the mediocre Cleveland Browns is just a week old. But I'm willing to write that off as a young team looking ahead on the schedule, underestimating a supposedly weak opponent. Perceptive veterans such as Wilfork said they saw it coming during an uninspired week of practice. I trust the lesson has been learned, with Sunday's game submitted as indisputable evidence.
We do know how to recognize an elite team around here, you know. We've a seen one, or two, or three over the last decade. And what we saw Sunday night . . . it just looked so pleasantly familiar. The Patriots pummeled the Steelers on their own turf. They were coldly efficient, versatile, physical and unyielding. If so many of the names on the jerseys hadn't changed, I would have sworn NBC's telecast was a bootleg version of the 2004 AFC Championship Game.
The team I saw Sunday is the best team I have seen on any given Sunday in the NFL this season. They have a chance -- a chance, but a realistic one -- to carve their own niche in history before this season is done. If the Patriots truly are poised to pull off this throwback thing in both style and results, well, you know what that means for you, Peyton.
Whoops, we should probably clarify which Peyton.
We're talking about you, Manning. That Hillis guy? We're not messing with him again -- consider it another lesson learned. Yes, that's the kind of year it's been.
About Touching All The Bases
Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.