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Patriots Now Firmly In NFL's Upper-Middle Class ... In A Conference That Remains Very Much Up For Grabs

By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston

BOSTON (CBS) -- We can now safely say what the Patriots are.

For a while, we didn't know. Losing to Miami, barely beating the Texans, competing with some Super Bowl contenders but ultimately losing -- it wasn't clear at all how good (or bad) the 2021 Patriots are.

Yet with Sunday's 24-6 thumping of the Panthers in Carolina adding to a winning streak that's now at three games, we can say this: The Patriots are firmly in the NFL's upper-middle class.

They're not at the top tier, with the Bucs, Packers, Rams, or newcomer Cardinals. But they're not miles away from that stratosphere, and they've got two things working in their favor.

For one, some of  those "elite" teams are still vulnerable. Dallas lost badly to the Broncos on Sunday, the Bucs lost to the Saints and their backup QB last week, the Packers are due for trouble without Aaron Rodgers for a bit. No team is untouchable.

Secondly -- and this one's bigger -- you've surely noticed that none of those elite teams reside in the American Football Conference.

The Titans might have belonged in that grouping if they hadn't just lost their entire offense with Derrick Henry's injury. Resting a franchise's Super Bowl hopes on Ryan Tannehill's and Adrian Peterson's shoulders in 2021 is a plan that is destined to fail.

The Bills could have been in that top tier ... perhaps ... if they hadn't lost to the Jacksonville Jaguars on Sunday afternoon. How great can a team really be if it has that loss on the resume and a 5-3 record?

The Ravens, after their narrow overtime victory over the Vikings on Sunday, may be the last team standing atop the conference. But with losses to the Bengals and Raiders, as well as a near-loss to the winless Lions, they're likewise not a team that emits a world-beating energy.

That leaves a whole host of teams in the AFC capable of using the final two months of the season to seize control of the conference. The Patriots can't be ruled out of that mix.

That being said, while it may be tempting to get swept up by the three-game winning streak, it's important to remember that the Patriots have still only beaten one quality opponent -- the 4-3 Los Angeles Chargers. The other four wins have come against the Jets (twice), Texans and Panthers, teams that have a combined record of 7-19.

The Patriots' strength of victory -- .317 -- is the second-lowest among all teams .500 or better in the AFC. Only the Bills' .256 mark is worse. The Bills have only beaten Miami (twice), Houston, Washington, and Kansas City, while losing to Pittsburgh, Tennessee, and ... Jacksonville.

That situation, though, does lend some optimism in the division. The AFC East was assumed to belong to the Bills this year, but the Patriots are now just a half-game out of first place. With two head-to-head games against a Bills team that's lost a whole lot of shine still on the docket, the division is within reach for New England.

Aiming at the AFC East crown, however, might be putting a cart or two before the horse. Including those Bills games, the Patriots have five games left against teams that are currently .500 or better. The final two games -- against those lowly Jaguars and the not-much-better Dolphins -- will be significant if the Patriots can prove themselves better than the majority of that NFL middle class.

Nobody can say at this juncture whether the Patriots will do it. Their dominant win on Sunday still showed some of the flaws that led to losses earlier in the year -- turnovers, penalties, and a slow start had the Patriots trailing 3-0 in the second quarter in Carolina. Against better teams, that kind of play leads to losses more often than wins.

So, while grand proclamations and spicy takes are always more exciting, there's still a distinct "We'll See" vibe on this team. It guarantees nothing, and the season still has plenty of time to turn the other way.

But for now, it can be confidently stated that the Patriots have as good a chance as anyone else to fight through the AFC. That may be worlds apart from the old days, when the season didn't really begin for the Patriots until the AFC Championship Game. But considering where they're coming from a year ago, this is a far more preferable place to be.

And unlike last year, the final stretch of the season figures to be unpredictable and wholly captivating.

You can email Michael Hurley or find him on Twitter @michaelFhurley.

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