This Patriots team can still be elite

The New England Patriots were off Sunday, providing an opportunity for those who closely follow the team to widen their view.

First impressions?

There is a lot of bad, inconsistent football being played across the NFL, and while the Patriots surely have their imperfections, they would still be within bounds to ask the same question the Boston Red Sox asked in 2004: Why not us?

The Patriots (3-1) are not in the elite class that currently includes the Baltimore Ravens, Pittsburgh Steelers and New York Jets, but they are in position to join them on Sunday. That's the bottom line even after all of the hubbub that has followed them this year: Wes Welker's recovery from knee surgery, Logan Mankins' contract standoff, Tom Brady's car accident and contract extension and the Randy Moss trade.

So just as Brady promised that last Monday's game at Miami would reveal his team's true colors, this week provides another measuring stick. Last week was a question of whether the Patriots could win a big game on the road; this time around it's whether they are ready to join the best of the NFL.

That might seem preposterous when considering some of the troubling statistics the club has produced. The Patriots are last in the NFL in third-down defense, with opponents converting 54.7 percent of the time, while foes are averaging 384 yards per game and scoring an average of 24 points per game.

No one is saying the Patriots' defense is championship-ready, but if this past Sunday's NFL action reinforced one thought, it's that seemingly every team has some similar deficiencies.

The Ravens aren't producing enough turnovers (a league-low three) and it was only a few weeks ago that some were calling for a quarterback change. The Steelers are banking on quarterback Ben Roethlisberger putting a charge into the NFL's lowest-producing passing attack (136 yards per game). The Jets overcame some shaky play from quarterback Mark Sanchez early in the season and rank 25th in third-down defense. The normally explosive Indianapolis Colts offense looked to be stuck in neutral on Sunday.

Meanwhile, in the NFC, it's a wide-open picture with the defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints (3-2) struggling to find their offensive groove. Chic picks such as the Green Bay Packers (3-2) and Dallas Cowboys (1-3) look vulnerable. Few could have predicted that the Chicago Bears (4-1) would be the team with the best record in the conference, tied with the Atlanta Falcons.

All of which reflects how the Patriots, given their current standing as one of five teams in the AFC with just one loss, are not out of line to be asking "Why not us?"

"I'd say like usual in the NFL, pretty much anything can happen any week," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said Monday when asked his impressions of the league through five weeks.

"Teams that you might expect to win don't win. Teams that you might not expect to win, win and win big. A lot of real close competitive games come down to the last possession, the last play or one key play right at the end of the game. [It] looks very competitive to me all the way across the board."

What the Patriots have going for them is that they are the NFL's highest scoring team (32.75 average) and also the best offense in the league on third down, converting 55.3 percent of the time. They have five returns for touchdowns -- two kickoffs, two interceptions and one blocked field goal -- along with one of the league's best head coaches and an overall system that has been built and refined over 11 seasons.

This is around the time of year when coaches like Belichick start to get a better gauge of their team's identity, and what has been learned about the Patriots is that they've re-established their home-field edge and proven they can win a big game on the road. Even with their defensive question marks, that already puts them much further along than the 2009 team.

Now, after another headline-making week that included the stunning trade of Moss, the Patriots face another test with one of the NFL's best teams coming to town.

It's easy to forget, but after all the hoopla the Patriots find themselves in a solid position in this wide-open NFL.

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.