FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- This is a little more like it. Not machine-like, by any stretch, but good. Consistently good.
These might not be the 2007 New England Patriots, who tore through their schedule with an offense that couldn't be stopped and a defense that came up big when it had to on the way to 16-0.
But the Patriots are pretty much back to where we expected them to be before the season. They're arguably the class of the AFC -- with the best arguments against that coming from the 4-0 Indianapolis Colts and maybe the 4-0 Denver Broncos -- and they're certainly in the conversation for class of the NFL (yes, Colts/Broncos/New York Giants/New Orleans Saints fans, we hear you loud and clear).
Besides improving their record to 3-1, the Patriots won a game that, at least for the early part of the season, went a long way toward determining the pecking order of the AFC. They defeated a previously unbeaten opponent that, in many league circles, had been viewed as superior. The Ravens looked to have a stronger offense, and their defense seemed every bit as stout as it has been for years. There was even talk in Baltimore and other places during the days leading up to the game that this season's Ravens resembled the 2000 version that won the Super Bowl -- only this team had a much better offense.
And it was that sort of billing, along with the Patriots' Super Bowl-winning pedigree, that gave this game the feel of something more significant than one would normally expect for early October. Emotions ran high, the hitting was intense, and there was a good bit of postgame smoldering among several Ravens. Chief among them was linebacker Ray Lewis, who complained about two personal-foul calls on hits to quarterback Tom Brady that kept alive two Patriots touchdown drives in the first half. "Embarrassing to the game," was how Lewis put it.
Nevertheless, the Patriots earned the victory. They more than held their own against the Ravens' highly talented and physical defense. They also played some solid defense of their own, making young quarterback Joe Flacco look far less comfortable than he had been while helping Baltimore average 34.3 points per game through the first three weeks of the season.
"Coming in, we knew we had to play well against this team, fight for every yard that we were going to get because it was going to be tough out there," center Dan Koppen said. "And they didn't disappoint."
Neither did the Patriots.
For that matter, the Patriots haven't disappointed for the past two weeks, which was quite a contrast to the way they had performed during their first two games. They had no business winning their season opener against the Buffalo Bills, who away gave the game in the final minutes and have since spiraled to a bottom-dweller. Then the Patriots were outcoached and outplayed by the New York Jets, who blitzed Brady silly and appeared to stake a claim on the AFC East perch. Both games raised questions about whether Brady was still bothered, physically and mentally, by the major knee injury that wiped out almost all of his 2008 season.
However, the Patriots, and particularly Brady, looked much more like their Super Bowl-contending selves in their Week 3 triumph over a strong Atlanta Falcons team. By following that performance with Sunday's victory, the Patriots declared that they will remain a force for the foreseeable future.
They can see improvement since the first week of the season. They know they need to make more, because things don't get any easier when they travel to Denver in Week 5.
"We're a work in progress," tight end Ben Watson said. "We're always striving to get better. Our goal is to build from week to week. Our standard is very high, and we just keep trying to attain it. (What's been impressive is) just the resilience of the team, just fighting against odds, against maybe some 'bad performances' in the beginning, and just coming to practice and working."
Getting their money possession receiver, Wes Welker, back from a knee injury that kept him out of the last two games made a huge difference. Against the Ravens, Welker led the Patriots with six receptions for 48 yards. But the largest part of New England's offensive success came from a balanced passing attack in which Brady connected with nine different receivers. As Watson pointed out, the Patriots are at their best "when there's a lot of people involved in the game plan."
One area that has received the greatest amount of attention during the Patriots' practices is their red-zone offense. Entering Sunday's game, they had just four touchdowns in 13 trips inside the opponents' 20-yard line. They were 3 of 5 on Sunday.
"It's a lot better," Watson said. "We've still got a ways to go. We're still not as efficient as we want to be, but we're building."
"There are still some execution issues as far as keeping the drives going and getting six instead of three," added running back Sammy Morris, who had a 12-yard touchdown run and a second-quarter carry for a fourth-down conversion that set up Brady's 1-yard scoring plunge. "But winning cures a lot of that."
The Patriots should know. This is the fourth consecutive season they've begun with at least three victories, and they're the only NFL team to open each of the last four seasons with a 3-1 record or better through four games.