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Patriots keep getting better and better

INDIANAPOLIS -- The New England Patriots distinguished themselves as the best team in the AFC on Sunday night by winning in spite of a critical mistake by Tom Brady that he'd dearly like to retract.

Think about that for a second.

If the Patriots can dominate a game in which their Hall of Fame quarterback (who established and cemented the gold standard by which the team is measured) throws two interceptions, one a horrendous no-look pop fly under pressure that he aptly decreed "a dumb play," then it's entirely plausible we still haven't seen the best this team has to offer.

New England enhanced this notion by thoroughly thumping the Indianapolis Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium, a venue previously noteworthy for colossal Patriots disappointment and expletive-laden tirades from supermodel wives.

It wasn't totally fanciful to think the Patriots would win this game; after all, since the 2010 season, they have submitted a mind-boggling 30-3 record in Weeks 9 through 16.

Make that 31-3 after they buried the Colts 42-20. This is what the Patriots do. They are constructed to peak late in the season when confronted with the iron of their schedule. Two weeks ago, they dispatched the Denver Broncos at home, and this week they upped the ante by thwarting Andrew Luck, the NFL's most prolific quarterback, in his own comfy, cozy dome.

Patriots doubters appropriately wondered if this team could win big games on the road.

Sunday's victory was precisely that. The Colts fell to 6-4, and after Denver's shocking loss to the Rams, the Broncos joined Cincinnati and Kansas City with three losses.

The Patriots are the only AFC team left with two losses, and they can completely control their postseason seeding.

Although the majority of the players trotted out the required "one game a time" and "we never look ahead" mantras, one of the newbie Patriots stars couldn't resist illustrating what this streak of excellent, two-way football feels like.

"We're sharks," declared Darrelle Revis, who tipped one of Luck's missiles so teammate Devin McCourty could pick it off. "We smell blood in the water. Each game like this is another step closer to our goal."

The goal is always the same: Super Bowl or bust. It is infinitely less taxing to achieve this with home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. On Sunday, New England took another giant step in the direction of securing that coveted position.

The surprising manner in which they locked up this victory was also noteworthy. What if I told you of the six touchdowns New England pinned on the Colts, four of them were scored by, ahem, Jonas Gray, who was toiling on the team's practice squad as recently as a month ago?

The Patriots employed an extra offensive lineman (Cameron Fleming) for 37 of their smashmouth running sets, which opened gaping holes for Gray and in turn, predictably, opened the passing attack for Brady and his boys. Teams preach balance every Sunday, but the Patriots actually implemented it. The team posted 501 total net yards, with 244 by land and 257 by air.

"We always try to stay balanced and try to get [running plays] on our terms," Brady said. "Tonight we kept making yards, no matter what our personnel was."

Remember when the offensive line was in disarray, reeling from the trade of guru Logan Mankins and failing in their quest to keep Brady upright? Neither do I. That was so yesterday.

Rookie Bryan Stork is a beast, and since Ryan Wendell won his job back, he's provided the gritty edge that made Mankins such an integral part of their unit.

"To see our offensive line perform like that, it was the best feeling in the world," defensive captain Vince Wilfork said. "We kind of fed off them. They showed us the way today."

Wilfork's side of the ball was consistently stout against the run and held Indy to 19 yards on the ground, including just 5 yards in the second half, when the Colts fell behind and had no choice but to try to throw their way back into the game.

"When you get behind and they make you one-dimensional, it's extremely difficult," Colts coach Chuck Pagano conceded. "We just couldn't come up with any answers."

It was a banner day all the way around for every Patriot except the quarterback, whose two picks in the first half threatened to ruin a perfectly good football evening.

New England was nursing a 14-3 lead in the waning minutes of the second quarter when Brady, on third-and-1 from his own 17, inexplicably tossed a floater to Rob Gronkowski as he was falling backward under pressure. Mike Adams easily intercepted it, and three plays later, that 14-3 New England advantage was cut to 14-10.

"It was a bad play," Brady admitted. "It was a no-look throw, which don't usually end up well. I thought I had a good look pre-snap, and [Gronk] got through there, but I just put too much air on the ball."

If Brady and Gisele ever choose to renew their vows, you can be sure it won't be at Lucas Oil Stadium. It was here that Belichick made the infamous gaffe of going for it on fourth-and-2 from his own 29-yard line in 2009, only to witness Kevin Faulk bobble the ball and allow the Colts to take over on downs. A pretty decent QB by the name of Peyton Manning punched it in the end zone to seal the Indy win.

This is also where Super Bowl XLII collapsed in a heap for the Patriots after Brady and Wes Welker failed to connect on a pass play that could have sealed the championship against the Giants. The fallout of that excruciating play included a diatribe from Brady's wife, who unleashed her own public frustration at the turn of events.

The ghosts of Lucas Oil might not have been exorcised completely, but the memories are clearly a little more palatable after Sunday.

"Yeah," McCourty agreed. "You don't really think about that stuff until you get on the field, and then you start remembering. This was much better."

It should be noted that Brady rebounded nicely in the second half, when he was 9-of-11 for 173 yards and two touchdowns. He completed passes to nine different targets.

So the Patriots train keeps rolling on both sides of the ball. This team has the feel of a winner that is versatile and still evolving. They are tacking on a new wrinkle each week, building toward December and January ... and February?

"You've got to figure out ways to get better and better," receiver Brandon LaFell said. "If you aren't getting better, then you're getting worse. There's no maintaining this time of year.

"It's win or nothing. I like winning."