With New England's early dominance, there's the early talk that this team could be the best Patriots team ever and have a chance to go 16-0. It's crazy to get too caught up in this talk just entering Week 4, but there are some unique factors about this team that makes an undefeated run at least a possibility.
1. Brady and offensive balance
Tom Brady has been a great player throughout his career, even when he lacked great weapons around him. Now, however, he has his best supporting cast ever. He can play with two tight ends on one down and come back with a five-wide receiver, empty-backfield set on the next. The Patriots are not afraid to use any formation on any down. It makes it nearly impossible for the defenses to read tendencies and many times, they are caught in unfavorable personnel matchup groupings. The Pats can also run the ball from any of these formations and now they have two backs to share the load: Laurence Maroney and Sammy Morris. Brady also has excellent pass protection. When he has time to throw the ball and read his progressions, he is lethal. Plus, nobody is better at looking off defenders and freezing defensive backs.
2. A complicated defense
With a core of smart, veteran players, the Pats have a lot of freedom to play some exotic defensive schemes. They can give you a 3-4 look, they can go to a 4-3 scheme. They can play man-to-man or zone. They can blitz or sit in coverages. Their presnap movement is legendary and offenses never know who's coming or who's dropping, and the element of confusion is always there.
The key to this group is its athletic linebackers, especially OLBs Mike Vrabel and Rosevelt Colvin and ILBs Tedy Bruschi, Adalius Thomas and Junior Seau. They are veteran players who can adjust to any role they are asked to play, which is imperative in a Bill Belichick defense. They can blitz, cover and play the run. To illustrate Belichick's system, he moved a great outside pass-rusher, Thomas, to the inside because he didn't want to move Vrabel back inside, and both players understand the move. These are interchangeable parts of a well-oiled machine and seem to embrace the variety of tasks they are asked to perform.
3. Disciplined special teams
This organization pays close attention to detail, and it carries over to the kicking game. The Patriots are not afraid to use veteran players on cover units, and nobody on this team is too proud to contribute on special teams. They are near the top of the league in every category that relates to cover units and their kicking game has no flaws. They have a kickoff returner in Ellis Hobbs who is a threat to score every time he touches the ball. He already has a 108-yard TD return this season. Welker returns punts and not only is he dependable, but he also has great quickness and explosiveness. They have a solid kicker in Stephen Gostkowski, who's been been automatic in 2007. Punter Chris Hanson is steady, but he doesn't put up huge numbers. While he plays with an offense that doesn't have to punt a lot, that's an area that needs improvement. This is a unit that never gives up field position and is going to win most special teams battles.
4. Preparation and maturity
This is the smartest team in the NFL and loaded with veteran players of high character. The Patriots are the best in the league at implementing a game plan during the week, but are equally adept at making in-game adjustments and can handle anything Belichick throws at them. In such a long and monotonous season, it's easy for players to get bored from time to time. This is what makes the Patriots unique. When the players come in on Wednesday and pick up their game plan, they can't wait to see what the mad professor cooked up. Each Belichick game plan is totally different and there are always new wrinkles with changing roles for several players. That keeps their interest from week to week. This philosophy prevents the Pats from ever looking ahead or sleepwalking through a game plan, because they're always being challenged every week. It also gives the players a huge dose of confidence because they go to the stadium each Sunday with the feeling that they have not only outprepared their opponent, but they are also going to show them something they have never seen before.
5. The Belichick factor
There is no question that the players have rallied around their coach through the spying scandal. This is an organization that is masterful at developing an "us against the world" mentality, and now the Patriots can play the rest of the season with a chip on their shoulder. They believe in Belichick because they have won doing it his way. They know he will work tirelessly to give them an edge in every area, and right or wrong, when they hit the field on Sunday they think they have an edge because the smartest coach in the NFL got them ready for the game. He pays great attention to detail and his players know that his focus is off the charts. If you want to play for this guy, you better be smart and instinctive. In a league that doesn't always show a lot of loyalty, these players perform for Belichick because they know where he can take them. They don't have to like him in a warm and fuzzy way, but they respect him. At times Belichick reminds you of a father that you are obsessed with pleasing. As tough as he is, he really appreciates players that do it his way, and that approval is something that they are all seeking.
Gary Horton, a pro scout for Scouts Inc., has been a football talent evaluator for more than 30 years. He spent 10 years in the NFL and 10 years at the college level before launching a private scouting firm called The War Room.