New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady celebrates a touchdown run by James Develin during the second half of an NFL football game against the Minnesota Vikings, Sunday, Dec. 2, 2018, in Foxborough, Mass. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

Elise Amendola/Associated Press

Those thrilled or concerned by how mortal the New England Patriots looked in a blowout Week 10 loss to the Tennessee Titans should have known better. 

Since regrouping during their Week 11 bye, the Patriots have reminded the football world that they remain the team to beat in the NFL

We were foolish to expect anything else. There’s an established annual pattern with Bill Belichick‘s team. Stumble in September, go on a run, lay an unexpected egg just before the home stretch, use said egg as motivation for another run that usually extends through January. 

Happened in 2014, when they went 2-2 in September, won their next seven, fell to the Green Bay Packers at the end of November and then never lost another game with Tom Brady serving as the primary quarterback the rest of the year. 

Happened in 2016, when they were shut out at home by the Buffalo Bills as Brady’s opening-month suspension was wrapping up, won their next four games, fell at home to the Seattle Seahawks in mid-November and then never lost another game the rest of the year.

Happened in 2017, when they started 2-2, won their next eight, fell to the 5-7 Miami Dolphins two weeks into December and then didn’t lose again until Super Bowl LII. 

Happening in 2018, when they started 1-2, won their next six, fell to the Titans in mid-November and then dominated the New York Jets and Minnesota Vikings in back-to-back 14-point victories. 

Both victories were expected, but the former came on the road against a familiar foe at a potential fork in the road for their season, while the latter—Sunday’s 24-10 win over Minnesota—looked far easier than many might have figured. After all, the Vikings were a final-four team last season and had won four of six entering Week 13. On paper, they’re as talented as New England, and their defense is significantly stronger. 

But for the 6,483rd time in the Belichick/Brady era, the Pats made a high-quality team look like a deer in the Gillette Stadium lights.

An offense that had scored at least 20 points in eight consecutive outings was held to just 10 as New England dominated the clock thanks to superb third-down defense, a pair of interceptions and a beautifully balanced (34 pass plays, 37 run plays) offensive performance. Brady threw an odd interception when the game was basically in hand, but all but seven of his 31 other attempts were completed on a 311-yard day. He didn’t take a single sack while completing passes to nine different receivers, while the D held star Vikings receivers Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs to just 77 combined yards. 

It’s that offensive and defensive equilibrium that might ultimately separate the Pats from the pack. 

Excluding the anomaly in Nashville, New England has quietly surrendered just 11.5 points per game since Week 8, with Trey Flowers, Lawrence Guy, Dont’a Hightower, Stephon Gilmore, Jason and Devin McCourty, Kyle Van Noy, Adrian Clayborn, Deatrich Wise, Duron Harmon, Malcom Brown, Elandon Roberts and Patrick Chung all playing well on that side of the ball.

And on offense, their five-headed running game has put together three excellent performances in a four-outing span. 

Cordarrelle Patterson and James White combined for 92 rushing yards and three touchdowns in a double-digit Week 9 victory over Green Bay; White, Patterson and rookie sensation Sony Michel combined for 216 yards and a score last week against the Jets; and on Sunday, Michel, White, Patterson, veteran Rex Burkhead and fullback James Develin combined for 120 yards and two more touchdowns. 

That’s made life a lot easier for the 41-year-old Brady, who hasn’t been sacked since that debacle against the Titans and was hardly touched Sunday by a defense that entered that game with the league’s second-highest sack rate. 

Brady and Co. weren’t perfect—the offense fell asleep for much of the second and third quarters before Brady hit Josh Gordon on a touchdown pass late in the third that would eventually be the game-winner—but that’s what’s so scary. On a good-but-not-great day offensively, they beat a 6-4-1 opponent by 14 points. And even if Brady still steals all the headlines, that’s a testament to their proficiency at positions other than quarterback.

FOXBOROUGH, MA - DECEMBER 02:  Duron Harmon #21 of the New England Patriots celebrates after intercepting a pass in the end zone during the fourth quarter against the Minnesota Vikings at Gillette Stadium on December 2, 2018 in Foxborough, Massachusetts.

Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

Look around the NFL, and it’s hard to find a contender that is as balanced as New England. 

The AFC’s top seed, Kansas City, just had to release its Pro Bowl running back after video surfaced of an alleged assault. But the Chiefs were already vulnerable on defense. Their D ranked 30th in football entering Week 13, and then they gave up 33 points to the Oakland Raiders’ 30th-ranked scoring offense Sunday.

The Pittsburgh Steelers offense has gone relatively cold, and the AFC North leader could miss holdout running back Le’Veon Bell down the stretch. The AFC South-leading Houston Texans aren’t as consistent or accomplished on offense, and the Los Angeles Chargers are dealing with an injury to star running back Melvin Gordon. 

In the NFC, the defensively susceptible NFC South-leading New Orleans Saints are coming off a brutal loss to the Dallas Cowboys, the 11-1 Los Angeles Rams are a week removed from a three-game stretch in which they gave up a ridiculous 42.3 points per affair. And the NFC North-leading Chicago Bears lack experience and consistency on offense. 

While other teams are beginning to crack, the Patriots are laughing. They’ve been here, done this. They’re extending drives, getting off the field on defense, limiting their mistakes. Everything you expect from a remarkably well-coached, veteran team. 

FOXBOROUGH, MA - DECEMBER 02:  Head coach Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots reacts after defeating the Minnesota Vikings 24-10 at Gillette Stadium on December 2, 2018 in Foxborough, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Billie Weiss/Getty Images)

Billie Weiss/Getty Images

That sometimes causes us to overlook the Patriots because they’re frankly a bit boring next to the Chiefs, Rams, Saints, Steelers and Chargers. Their old quarterback does not and cannot do what Patrick Mahomes can do, they don’t have any megastars elsewhere on either side of the ball, deep rotations at the offensive skill positions and up front on defense prevent most players from putting up eye-catching individual statistics, and they’re not the sort of team that routinely blows up Twitter. 

They just keep winning, usually with relative ease, and seemingly within a pattern that has found them in the Super Bowl three of the last four years. 

“This part of the season is Patriots football,” said wide receiver Josh Gordon before his big performance Sunday, per ESPN.com’s Mike Reiss. “It’s what they’re known for.”

With all due respect to the higher-ranked, highlight-manufacturing Chiefs, the expectation now should be for New England to make that four Super Bowls in five years.

Unlike in Kansas City, and unlike in Foxborough at around this time last year, there’s no tumult surrounding this New England team. The Pats are getting healthy (imagine if a healing Rob Gronkowski can get back on track) and hot (that’s actually four double-digit victories in a five-game span) just when they usually do, and Belichick’s deep, snap-limiting rotations should again give the Pats an edge over the competition in the war of attrition that the NFL season becomes in December and January. 

This Patriots team is indeed mortal, but it’s not ready to die. Like it or not, the Pats will be the toughest out in professional football come January. 

     

Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012.

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