Patriots looking like themselves after slow start to season

KYLE HIGHTOWER (AP Sports Writer)
The Associated Press

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) -- The Patriots have rarely shown signs of vulnerability during Bill Belichick's tenure.

So, when New England began the season 2-2 with a pair of home losses, questions crept up about the stability of a team trying to defend its latest Super Bowl title.

But despite a preseason injury to Julian Edelman, inconsistent play from some of its offseason additions and shaky play on defense that included a season-ending injury to Dont'a Hightower, New England has reeled off six straight wins. It can guarantee its 17th consecutive winning season with a victory against AFC East rival Miami on Sunday.

And with Tom Brady putting up MVP-like numbers at age 40, suddenly a team once showing cracks finds itself exactly where everyone thought it would be.

''Competing against these guys as many times as I have, it seems like as the year goes on, they usually get better the longer the season goes,'' Dolphins coach Adam Gase said.

Belichick is known for his gruff one-liners almost as much as the mounds of success his teams have produced since his first season in 2000.

From familiar quips like ''Do your job'' to ''We're gonna do what's best for the team,'' he has been nothing if not consistent.

When last week's win over Oakland pushed him to 271 career wins and third all-time among NFL head coaches behind Don Shula and George Halas, it was no surprise to see him sheepish upon receiving the game ball from Patriots owner Robert Kraft after the game.

''Congratulations - it's about our team. It's about our team,'' he said in a video capturing the moment .

Though it's what people have come to expect from Belichick, it also was an example of a mentality that Patriots safety Devin McCourty says has become infectious on a team that has managed to ''not allow negativity to seep into the locker room.''

''Same guys. Same team. I think we're just doing a better job executing, paying attention to the small things - all the details of how you play good football,'' McCourty said. ''I think we've just come together. We knew it was gonna kind of be a work in progress. ... We kind of focused and believed in that.''

While other Patriots teams have certainly overcome adversity to find success under Belichick, this group has a chance to be among his most shining examples.

Through four games the defense allowed opponents to score 30 or more points three times, while sinking to the bottom of the league in total defense.

Then came the Oct. 22 season-ending shoulder injury to Hightower against Atlanta. It further muddied things for a defense that had gotten inconsistent play from its secondary, including very little return from the offseason investment it made in cornerback Stephon Gilmore.

Offensively, the Patriots were putting up points, but struggled to produce touchdowns in the red zone.

Things have changed on both sides of the ball during their win streak, with New England outscoring opponents 161-75.

It begins with the 40-year-old Brady, who has thrown for 3,146 yards, 22 touchdowns and just two interceptions through 10 games. His 8.3 yards per pass attempt average is equal to his MVP season in 2007 and better than his MVP season in 2010 (7.9).

He hasn't thrown an interception since Week 6 and has found a go-to deep threat in Brandin Cooks (45 catches, four touchdowns). Meanwhile, Dion Lewis has brought consistency to the running game and become the weapon on special teams that he was prior to his knee injury in 2015.

''There isn't a specific moment where you kind of realize that a player coming back off of an injury has resumed a previous form or percentage or what have you,'' offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said of Lewis. ''I just think we've been trying to give him opportunity to work back in over the last two years and do the things that he does well.''

The defense has been equally impressive, buoyed by the play of Kyle Van Noy, who has assumed Hightower's leadership role at linebacker. Van Noy leads the team with 64 tackles. He's also tied for the team lead with four sacks, along with defensive lineman Trey Flowers.

Belichick said any success they've had lately has been the result of trusting in their approach.

''I think in the end whatever problem you have, whatever degree it is - it's still the same process,'' he said. ''No matter what you're looking at you've got to figure out what's wrong. Then you have to figure out what you need to do to make it better.''

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