Pats take lumps of coal and deliver gold

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Where it all leads, who knows? But what can be definitively stated about the players and coaches who comprise the 2011 New England Patriots is this: They have some big footballs.

The latest evidence came in Saturday's 27-24 come-from-behind win over the Miami Dolphins at Gillette Stadium.

Things couldn't have looked much worse in the first half; it was almost like reliving a few recent playoff nightmares all over again, the high-powered offense knocked off course and the defense putting up just spotty resistance. The home crowd booed, and if it seemed harsh, it was.

The Patriots trailed 17-0 at the break and didn't look anything like the team with the AFC's best record. Still, players described an overall sense of calm in the locker room.

"You're either going to do one of two things in a situation like that -- come out swinging, or keep playing bad football," linebacker Rob Ninkovich said. "It comes down to being mentally tough and knowing that we have to start swinging and the time is now."

Outside of the record-breaking right arm of quarterback Tom Brady, that toughness is arguably the greatest strength of this Patriots team.

They are proven swingers. They're going to give you their best shot.

Sure, some of the personnel can be questioned. Safety play, in particular, has looked shaky in recent weeks, and the 2011 dip in performance from cornerback Devin McCourty, a Pro Bowler as a rookie last year, is obviously concerning. The defense, on the whole, is hard to invest in because of its inconsistent play.

But in focusing so intensely on deficiencies, which is the type of mindset that seems to drive sports radio, it seems reality has been lost in some corners of the region.

In a league in which even the elite teams are flawed, the steel-minded Patriots are an AFC-best 12-3.

In a league where teams' hopes often sink quickly because of one key injury, the Patriots' formula of plugging in the "next man up" continues to produce winning results.

In a league where a loose-lipped coach can guarantee a Super Bowl victory and then have his team on the brink of not even making the playoffs, Bill Belichick puts his head down and pushes the right buttons for a ninth division title in 11 years.

In a league where some owners are detached from their teams, Robert Kraft is involved to the point that players presented him with an emotional game ball Saturday.

In short, there are a lot of good things going on here, even if it doesn't always seem that way. That's not to say a Super Bowl championship will be forthcoming -- things still have to break right for any champ to be crowned -- but if not the Patriots, then who?

They have as good a shot as any.

"There's nobody playing perfect football right now," veteran guard Brian Waters said. "So we're no different from any other football team outside of the fact that we've got an extended season that we know we have in front of us, and next week is a great opportunity for us to get even better going into that part of the season."

On Saturday, the key to digging out of trouble and getting the offense on track in the second half was going to a quicker-rhythm passing game in which the ball was out of Brady's hands quicker. Defensively, the Patriots switched into attack mode and capitalized on a big turnover in the final 30 minutes (they are now 102-4 since 2001 when winning the turnover battle).

Waters, now in his 12th season, wants to see the Patriots avoid putting themselves in tough spots like Saturday, but at the same time, he likes what he sees when that adversity hits.

"We have a very calm and confident demeanor in the guys around. There is a lot of trust in each individual and the fact we have a great coaching staff that is going to put us in the things we need to do to be successful," he said. "If we trust that, and trust each other, we have a chance to do well."

Part of what Waters appreciated about the Patriots' win was the way offensive tackle Marcus Cannon, running back Stevan Ridley and guard Donald Thomas stepped into front-line roles and performed capably.

Waters said he's been on teams in which that doesn't always happen; sometimes when players are thrust into extended action, others try to do more to compensate because they don't have complete trust. Waters sees complete trust in all corners of the New England locker room and that is part of the mental toughness the club has shown all season.

"This is as good as it's ever been in my career," he said. "The professionalism these guys show, and no matter what the circumstances are, they don't panic. Then they come right back to work.

"You have to have [mental toughness] to go far," he continued. "It comes from the organization. It comes from time. It comes from going through some tough days, some ups and downs. I think if you look at the early part of when this team was put together, and now look at where it is today, you can tell they learned some things from early on and got a certain mindset. No matter who you are, when you come in here it grows on you and becomes contagious."

Where it all leads, no one knows.

But maybe a little less time thinking about the destination, and more on the process of getting there and the struggles of 31 other NFL teams along the same path, would lead to greater appreciation of these 2011 New England Patriots.

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.