Patriots look for identity vs. Raiders

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Shortly after the New England Patriots' final preseason game, against the New York Giants on Sept. 1, coach Bill Belichick was asked whether he felt his team was ready for the 2011 season. His answer highlighted how Sunday's road game against the Oakland Raiders is a "checkpoint" for his squad.

"I don't think you can ever tell," Belichick responded at the time. "It takes about three or four regular-season games before you really know what you've got. Without any game planning in preseason, it's hard to tell."

Belichick's point was that teams don't plan to exploit specific opponents' weaknesses in the preseason, and in turn, his team wasn't emptying out its best X's and O's stuff. So it takes about a quarter of the season for the picture to come into focus, and that's why by about 7:30 p.m. ET Sunday, we should know more about what the 2011 Patriots are all about.

"I think it's fair," 12-year veteran guard Brian Waters said. "You have a good number of games, and different type of opponents to get a feel for the things you're doing right and the things you're doing wrong consistently.

"If there is a problem you're having over and over and over for those four games, then it's something you know you need to address. The same thing if you're doing something well. Then you know it's something you feel more comfortable with going forward."

With that in mind, one might call this an "identity" game for the Patriots, a team that has flashed offensive brilliance at times through the first three weeks of the season, but also major vulnerability on defense.

Is this what the Patriots really are?

One of the themes among players this week has been getting back to playing "Patriots football," which ties in to a team identity. That starts with taking care of the football after four interceptions last week against the Buffalo Bills, and limiting big plays on defense, which has been a major problem.

Waters noted those goals aren't unique to the Patriots, but "we take a lot pride in that."

"It's really just trying to get back on track in terms of doing the things we do right," Waters said. "We know we're going into a tough environment, so we can't let those things to distract us."

A tough environment sometimes brings a team together, creating an us-against-the-world mentality. The 2009 Patriots, for example, struggled to win on the road, which reflected, in part, a locker room in which players were pulling in different directions.

Waters doesn't see anything like that with this club.

"This is a good team, a very professional football team; very consistent, not an up-and-down, roller-coaster type atmosphere," he said. "Every day you come in to work, the guys prepare. The first thing I noticed once I got here was how many guys were here on their days off. That can be hard to convince guys how important that is, and that's something I noticed right away."

While that team dynamic looks promising to Waters, questions remain as to whether the talent is at championship levels, specifically on defense. No team in the NFL has given up more yardage.
Overall, the Patriots rank 27th in the NFL in points allowed. They now face a test against a physical Raiders offense with the NFL's leading rusher, Darren McFadden (393 yards).

Take those statistics, and combine them with Raiders linebacker Rolando McClain's remarks that the Patriots are a finesse team, and it makes sense to think this is a "prove it" type of game for players to defend the Patriots logo.

To this point, though, players haven't made a big deal of McClain's remarks. "It just means he's thinking about us," one player said Friday.

"I guess we'll see Sunday," veteran receiver Deion Branch said. "I think we have a good team. The biggest thing with us is just all about being consistent, week in and week out, each and every game, in all three phases. One week it can look this way; the next week it's not the same thing. It always boils back to consistency and having that trust in your teammates."

After four games, there is a larger sample size to dissect. Surely, a team can still evolve after the fourth game of the season, and there are plenty of examples of clubs that start fast only to fade down the stretch.

But it seems fair to say that Sunday's game against the Raiders represents a key checkpoint for the 2011 New England Patriots.

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.