Patriots better than it seemed

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Some football perspective, please. That is what is called for after the New England Patriots' 31-24 victory over the visiting Indianapolis Colts on Sunday.

No, it wasn't the decisive knockout many hoped for, as Bill Belichick's boys stumbled to the finish line. And yes, the revolving-door defense still makes one wonder if it will be good enough when it counts. These are areas that must be fine-tuned, and disappointed players are already expecting a cranky Belichick this week.

But let's not lose sight of the bigger picture, which is something a handful of veteran Colts players reinforced afterward: At 9-3, these Patriots are in a spot most teams envy. The victory helps them keep pace for the AFC's No. 1 seed and they had no catastrophic injuries that dramatically alter the picture coming down the homestretch.

Some style points would have been nice, but the bottom line is the bottom line. The Colts know it.

"They're going to be in the mix at the end," quarterback Peyton Manning said. "I think the same usual suspects will be in the postseason and I'm sure they'll have a chance as good as everybody."

Such perspective is hard to come by when the focus is so intensely on one team, which is the way many in New England view the Patriots. The Colts have faced some of the NFL's better teams this season -- Houston, Pittsburgh, New Orleans and Atlanta among them -- and none of them hesitated to put the Patriots in that class.

"I think they're a good football team, well-coached, and they're not going to beat themselves," veteran Colts center Jeff Saturday said. "Obviously, [Tom] Brady's a very good quarterback, they have a good offensive line, the tight ends are playing great football and making great catches for them. The defense will give up yards but they're not going to give up very many points, and that's a good formula for taking this thing pretty far. They have as good a chance as anybody right now."

They do, which shouldn't be overlooked after a less-than-satisfying victory over the Colts in which the Patriots led 31-3 at the end of the third quarter, then were outscored 21-0 in the fourth. It's a result that provides ammunition to those who believe a championship will elude the Patriots because of a leaky defense that Belichick has been working to fix for a few years now.

But think of it this way: What would everyone be saying if the Patriots put a 41-0 spanking on the winless Colts? It would be the same thing we've heard the past two weeks after wins over backup quarterbacks Tyler Palko (Chiefs) and Vince Young (Eagles). There would still be doubt.

So really, we're no closer to having any definitive answers about the 2011 Patriots. Those will have to wait until the playoffs, where Colts players envision New England being a tough team to knock out.

"There are a lot of good teams out there, but they're definitely in stride at the right time," injured tight end Dallas Clark said. "I think they've gotten better here the last few weeks. I think they have enough veteran guys on the team to keep the younger guys in check and keep them focused with what they need to do, and to understand the situation as each week progresses with the playoffs coming up. I think they have a good balance of talent and veteran leadership at a lot of different positions."

"Typical Patriots, a well-coached team, a team that goes out there and finds ways to win," added receiver Reggie Wayne, who exchanged a handshake and hello with Belichick after the game (free-agent recruiting, perhaps?). "Whenever you play those guys, you can expect them to be well-prepared and ready to go."

At this point, the Patriots want to be ready to go leading into the playoffs, and they didn't take a step in that direction Sunday in a choppy performance. No one is saying it's perfect. At the same time, we shouldn't forget that the Super Bowl teams of 2001, 2003 and 2004 had some didn't-look-so-good performances coming down the homestretch.

When looking at the AFC at this point, the Steelers and Ravens certainly are tough. The Texans are hanging in despite big-time injuries at quarterback. The Broncos might be for real and the Jets are hanging in there.

As Manning said, it's some of the usual suspects. The Patriots are right there.

"The offense is the great core of their team. Having Tom Brady, you're definitely in the elite position," Colts receiver Pierre Garcon said. "When you can spread the field with five wide, no running backs, it's like he can do anything."

"They've got a lot of talent and a lot of weapons on offense," added kicker Adam Vinatieri, who marveled at the impact tight end Rob Gronkowski is having on the attack. "I've watched [Gronkowski] for two years and the kid is just special. And [Aaron] Hernandez is great, too. Then you have [Wes] Welker and this and this and [Julian] Edelman, so many different guys. You try to game plan for a team like that and say, 'We're going to shut down this guy.' Well, they have five other guys. It's pretty tough to shut that whole group of people down."

It's no coincidence that many Colts players were focusing on the Patriots' offense. That's the unit that is going to have to take the Patriots where they want to go, with the defense playing a complementary role.

Next up are road games against the Redskins and Broncos, before the season ends with home dates against the Dolphins and Bills. A 13-3 finish and No. 1 seed is in striking distance. Where it all leads, no one knows.

But as Colts players repeated, the Patriots have as good a chance as anyone, which is the type of perspective that can be easily lost when a win isn't as convincing as desired.

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.