EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. Right about now, tapping the brakes is probably advisable.
Because after Sunday nights 37-16 humiliation of the Jets in front of their home fans, the temptation will be to anoint.
Before the game began, I wondered if this slumping team littered with defensive fill-ins like Jeff Tarpinian, Sterling Moore, Antwaun Molden and Philip Adams (combined NFL tackles, including last night: 48) could do what teams of Patriots past had done: Block out the doubt, trust the system, play with abandon, and steal a win nobody expected them to get.
They did. Now what does it mean? It means they have character. It means they have resilience.
Does it mean a division title, playoffs, an inside track to Indy in February?
Thats where the brake tapping comes in. They are 2-2 over their last four. They still have key defenders injured add Devin McCourty and his separated shoulder to Brandon Spikes MCL sprain and Patrick Chungs injured right foot.
But they are more a team than they were before the game began. And they took a chunk out of a team they hate, a team that has made its lifes work unseating the Patriots from their position of AFC East dominance. They may not be as talented especially on defense as teams from years past. And they will probably still be maddening at times.
But they are hard very hard not to like.
Its all about proving yourself, said safety James Ihedigbo, released by the Jets at the end of the preseason. Respect is never given, its earned, and as a defense we earned it today. You look across our secondary and its a bunch of guys that people said werent good enough or couldnt play. Patrick Chung and Devin McCourty, I believe, are the only draft picks in our secondary. And then Dev goes down with a hurt shoulder, but Molden comes in and we dont miss a beat. Its a testament to what we got in the secondary.
"We still got half the season left to play. Whatever happened the first half doesnt matter. All we got is each other and we gotta just play the way were capable of playing and be accountable to each other and play the way we played today.
There was an urgency to the way the Patriots played Sunday night. A desperateness on the defense that, perhaps not coincidentally, wasn't apparent when guys like Leigh Bodden and Albert Haynesworth were here and apparently content to merely go through the motions until the coaching staff had seen enough.
It wasnt just the back-end guys in the secondary I mentioned. It was also Andre Carter, a guy who hasnt taken a play off all year, coming up with four sacks. And Mark Anderson, mostly a non-factor through the first half, playing like his head was on fire.
The sage of this defense, a pros pro, is Gerard Warren. Asked what he learned about the players summoned to step in Sunday night, Warren said, They showed their professionalism Their accountability. Everybody on this team and in this locker room takes pride in knowing what to do and being ready to play when their number is called.
There were big plays by no-names (and former no-names) all over the game book by the time it was over. From Rob Ninkovichs pick-six to seal it to Niko Koutoivides fumble recovery on a muffed punt. Koutouvides just re-joined the team on Friday.
The road for the Patriots gets somewhat easier from here, at least on paper. They play just one team with a winning record, the reeling Bills, in the season finale. The combined record of their opponents is 21-42.
Can the Patriots realistically expect a secondary of young castoffs to continue performing with abandon and smarts? Well, Bill Belichick says every player must establish his level of play. And on Sunday night, these often-overlooked players established that, in a critical game in prime-time, they were plenty good enough.
We battle, said Tom Brady. Some of the guys you dont really know. You know who they are, but you havent seen them perform under pressure. Some of the guys were up from the practice squad, playing scout team defense this week and then I see them in the game on our defense. A lot of guys really stepped up to the challenge tonight.
Added Warren: Its victory. Its always sweet. No matter what stadium or what trash has been talked. Any time you come out victorious at the end of the day thats the goal and the mission.