Why these Patriots could win it all

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The most exciting moment from the first half of the New England Patriots' 2013 season had an impossible-to-overlook twist to it.

Many of the 68,756 who were in attendance didn't see it.

This wasn't lost on at least one Patriots player, who was puzzled how that could be the case after quarterback Tom Brady connected with receiver Kenbrell Thompkins on a 17-yard touchdown pass with five seconds remaining to cap off a thrilling 30-27 comeback win over the New Orleans Saints on Oct. 13.

The player relayed the story of how he looked around Gillette Stadium as Brady was engineering a brilliant comeback and asked himself the question, "Where is everyone?"

Then he thought something like this: "When you have Tom Brady as your quarterback, anything is possible, unless I missed something over the last 13 years."

We're revisiting that story today because one of the lingering questions surrounding the Patriots is whether a championship is really possible. Sure, they're 7-2, well-positioned for another of their patented second-half surges. But are they built to compete for a Super Bowl title?

Our straightforward answer: yes.

Why anyone would doubt that is a bit of a head-scratcher, but we have a theory. With such a laser focus on one team, sometimes it's easy to lose sight of the other 31, and this creates an expectation that simply can't be reached.

The Patriots are flawed, no doubt about it. Their run defense remains a concern, there have been wild swings of inconsistency on offense, and coverage units on special teams have shown vulnerability. Injuries have cut deep.

But here's the rub. Pick any team in the NFL, including the Denver Broncos, and we can make a similar list because every club has its flaws and key injuries. We don't think the Patriots' deficiencies are that much more severe than the other top AFC contenders, such as Denver, Kansas City, Cincinnati and Indianapolis.

Furthermore, the key, as it has been in recent years, is getting hot at the right time. Last year, the Baltimore Ravens didn't have the look of a Super Bowl champion in December; likewise with the New York Giants the year before.

There is absolutely no reason that can't happen for the Patriots, who won a Super Bowl championship in 2004 with receivers playing cornerback and unsung free-agent signings like Hank Poteat and Earthwind Moreland in key roles.

With this time to step back and assess at the bye, one of the final pieces of evidence we needed to see came Sunday in a 55-31 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers when the offense finally clicked. Not every defense will be as generous as the Steelers, but the presence of tight end Rob Gronkowski would have made things tough on most any opponent, and he clearly changes the complexion of the New England attack.

Running back Shane Vereen is also on his way back, so pieces are starting to fall into place on offense, including quarterback Tom Brady and rookie receiver Aaron Dobson. There have been times this season when it didn't seem to matter what team was on the other side -- Brady and Dobson were going to have a hard time connecting on a back-shoulder throw or long bomb for a score. Not anymore.

On defense, we've seen the difference that cornerback Aqib Talib makes, and he's expected back after missing 3½ games with a hip injury. The unit that carried the team early has needed some help in recent weeks, but there's reason to believe that can turn around, starting with Talib.

The special teams, with kicker Stephen Gostkowski leading the way, have also shown they are capable of being a key part of a championship quest.

This isn't to say the Patriots have it all figured out and will win the Super Bowl, but based on what we've seen to this point, some key ingredients are in place to say convincingly that they will at least be in the mix to be the team that gets hot at the right time. They are disciplined (fifth-fewest penalties in the NFL) and mentally tough. They are winning the all-important turnover differential (plus-9, third in the NFL) and have often made plays in critical situations that decide games.

It hasn't always looked great, and no one is arguing that 7-2 could easily be 4-5, or maybe worse. But that's the NFL, especially this year in the wide-open AFC.

Count these Patriots out at your own risk ... and maybe think twice about leaving early.