BOSTON (AP) — So much for “Deflategate” having a lasting impact on the Patriots this season.
New England has reached the halfway point of its 2016 season and enters its bye week — surprise — with the best record in the AFC.
The Patriots battled through some early injuries and performed above expectations to go 3-1 with quarterback Tom Brady serving his four-game suspension at the start the season.
But they’ve quickly climbed back into championship form since his return, posting a 4-0 record and getting even for their lone setback of the season with a dominating 41-25 win over the Bills on Sunday.
The numbers speak for themselves.
Without Tom Terrific, the Patriots averaged 20.25 points and suffered their first shutout loss at Gillette Stadium — 16-0 to Buffalo — on Oct. 2.
With Brady the offense is cruising, averaging 34 points and beating opponents by an average of 16.25 points.
But Brady thinks his team can play even better.
“It’s pretty early still. We’ve got a long way to go,” Brady said. “I think 7-1 is good, but coach always says seven wins won’t get you anything in this league and he’s right. So we have a lot of football ahead. This is when it starts to get to feeling like football season.”
What is undeniable to this point is that New England is without peer in the AFC East where it is 2-1 against division foes. Second-place Buffalo (4-4) is three games behind with a 1-3 division record.
Bills coach Rex Ryan said he thinks that anybody outside of the Patriots winning the division is already a longshot.
“That team’s three games up on us and I think at the halfway point they’ve lost one game. And No. 12 is back. So, yeah, I don’t see that happening,” Ryan said. “I hope I’m wrong.”
What might be even scarier for opposing AFC teams is that Brady already seems to have gelled with new additions such as Martellus Bennett and Chris Hogan, who are both excelling in their first year in offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels’ offense.
Bennett has four touchdown catches and has caught six passes of at least 20 yards. His 50.2 yards per game average is also just shy of the 57.2 per game he averaged when he was selected to the Pro Bowl in 2014.
Meanwhile, Hogan (two touchdowns, 391 yards receiving) is on pace to set career highs in both receiving yards and touchdowns.
That doesn’t even include the play of tight end Rob Gronkowski, who has posted three 100-yard receiving games and all three of his touchdowns this season since Brady’s return.
It’s all helped to mask the shortcomings of a Patriots defense that has had to battle through injuries and uncharacteristic inconsistency.
But that, too, is starting to subside with captain Dont’a Hightower starting to get into more of a groove after being slowed early by a knee injury.
Improving on the defensive side of the ball will be a priority with a post-bye schedule that includes matchups with three NFC West teams, beginning with Seattle on Nov. 13.
“We’ll get a lot of teams we’re not very familiar with,” coach Bill Belichick said. “Obviously Seattle, I’ve got a lot of respect for coach (Pete) Carroll and the Seahawks program, so that’s a big test for us.”
Follow Kyle Hightower on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/khightower
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