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Patriots beginning to show toughness that had been missing

Elise Amendola/AP
BenJarvus Green-Ellis rushed for 136 yards on 27 carries in the Patriots' 30-21 win over the Jets.


Each Tuesday, NFL Network reporter Albert Breer will share his thoughts on topics around the league as teams transition from the previous Sunday's game to the next encounter on the schedule. Today, he begins with a look at an AFC contender that's learning to play with toughness.

The Patriots are still overly reliant on Tom Brady, even though their different-looking win over the Jets may have suggested otherwise. Of course they are.

"Sure," said one rival executive I asked after the game. "But wouldn't you be? He's pretty (bleeping) good." The exec continued that the Patriots are on par with anyone "because of 12."

Even with the Jets dead set on limiting the passing game, Brady still threw for 321 yards, on 24-of-33 passing, and still compiled a QB rating north of 100. But this one wasn't the same.

Against a Jets team that's ragged now, but remains rough and tumble, New England proved it was plenty tough for the fight. The Patriots' 13-play, 69-yard, 6:12-long drive in the fourth quarter went like this: Run, sneak, run, run, run, run, run, run, pass, run, run, run, field goal. After Stephen Gostkowski capped it with a 28-yard field goal, New England's tally looked like this: 4 first downs, 9-point lead, 1:02 left. Ballgame.

"Guys are showing up to play in the fourth quarter and really finishing," Wes Welker told me after the game. "It's big for us, shows some resiliency and we have to keep that going throughout the season."

Fellow receiver Deion Branch cited one piece fitting the other, saying, "We need to play complementary football. Take advantages of opportunities, especially on offense, making sure we convert on third downs and play mistake free. The stuff that we're doing that's hurting us is stuff that we're doing, not what the opposing team is doing to us."

The Patriots still have their issues, particularly on defense, where the Jets offense gave them plenty of help last Sunday in limiting the damage to 21 points.

It's also worth watching Albert Haynesworth, who (according to profootballfocus.com) has now played on 74 of the Patriots' 339 defensive snaps (21.8 percent), has $590,000 in incentives at 40, 45, 50, 55 and 60 percent playtime, and carries a rep as being motivated by money, something that will be tested with that cash slipping from his reach. He'll have to play nearly half the snaps the rest of the way to reach even one of those.

But elsewhere, the hard edge that's been missing from New England at important times in recent years -- the commonality in the team's three-game playoff losing streak is getting beat at the line of scrimmage -- is showing up. And that's not insignificant.

Time for Chargers to turn it on

The Chargers are plus-11 in point differential. Antonio Gates' availability looks like it'll be a weekly proposition, and Philip Rivers' play has suffered for that. Yes, the offense and defense remain among the most statistically prolific in football, but the Bolts aren't passing the eye test with the same kind of flying colors.

And yet, you look at the standings, and the Chargers are 4-1.

Norv Turner's been in San Diego for five years now, and slow starts are his Chargers' M.O. The past four teams were each 2-3 at this point. This one, conversely, has found a way to scrape by. It wasn't easy this week, with San Diego having to hold off that Tim Tebow-fueled rally, stop a game-tying two-point conversion and stump a last-gasp attempt to finish off Denver.

But if this team can turn it on like Turner's other teams have -- and it's about that time -- then the Chargers figure to be right there in the running for home field with teams like New England, Baltimore and Pittsburgh.

Want Tebow? Build an offense

If you go back a few months, you might recall my taking a fire hose to the burning desires of some to hand Tim Tebow the reins in Denver.

Now? Hand me the matches, because I'll start the fire for those folks. Denver's 1-4, and Kyle Orton's probably playing his last year as a Bronco. The club spent a first-round pick on Tebow -- significant capital -- and should want to know what it has. All that probably played into the decision to start the former Heisman winner, and if John Elway and John Fox don't want to be in a position to have to commit to a quarterback they don't see as the long-term answer, well, I understand that.

Tebow's not for everyone. His pinch-hitting appearance got the masses riled and brought the Broncos back on Sunday, yet what he showed was hardly enough to draw conclusions. But if Tebow explodes, maybe Elway and Fox change their minds. Or maybe they simply build a trade market.

I don't think Tebow's going to make it as an NFL quarterback. Other folks do. Those opinions vary, which is fine. What's less arguable is that to pick Tebow as The Guy means building an offense around him, and that means you have to be all in. One scout told me, "His SEC success leads me to believe the guy can compete on NFL level, but more in a (specialized) role than as a starting QB." If he's your starter? You then need an entirely specialized offense. We'll see if Denver's ever convinced to take that plunge.

L.A. Raiders, part two?

No matter which turn off the freeway the NFL takes in Los Angeles -- towards Ed Roski's project in the Eastern outskirts or Phil Anschutz's downtown facility -- one thing has been consistent and indisputable among folks I've talked to in reporting on all this. And that's the NFL is resolute on not getting just any franchise there, but the right franchise for L.A. The bottom line is the league is determined to get it right this time around. That may mean turning to one team that turned its back on SoCal 16 years ago.

The Raiders have what the NFL is looking for. A built-in fan base. An iconic brand. And the kind of team that could create the kind of "scene" to attract Angelinos in the same manner the Lakers do.

The caveat I always got in discussing the Raiders with those in the know centered on skepticism that Al Davis and the league could work together. Obviously, the future of the franchise is still up in the air. But the team will hire a GM, and once ownership gets sorted out, there'll be a decision to make. And it could be this: Share a stadium with the 49ers in Santa Clara, or bolt for LaLa Land.

Bengals are back on defense

There isn't a team that's gotten to 3-2 more quietly than Cincinnati. And the storyline as you've read it is how a rookie quarterback and an offensive coordinator who'd never been more than a quality-control coach in the NFL have made it work.

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But the real story is on the other side of the ball. Through five weeks, and despite losing big-money cornerback Johnathan Joseph, the Bengals are first in the league in total defense (279.6 yards per game), edging their NFC North rivals in Pittsburgh (second) and Baltimore (third). And they've done it by surrounding younger core players like Rey Maualuga, Carlos Dunlap and Leon Hall with scrap-heap pickups such as Reggie Nelson, Nate Clements and Manny Lawson.

Bringing it all together, again, has been Mike Zimmer, who at some point will get the credit he deserves for the job he's done in running NFL defenses for the past decade. But the best part for the Bengals? Last year, certain players (looking at you, Cedric Benson) were perplexed at the sacrifice of the 2009 playoff team's hardscrabble identity to cater to new weapon Terrell Owens. Looks like that identity is back.

Five one-liners

» It'll be an interesting scene in the locker room of whomever loses next week's Jets-Dolphins game.

» Jim Harbaugh's 49ers have the same tough look his Stanford teams did, and I wonder if having played for Mike Singletary gave some players a head start on what Harbaugh wanted.


Relive every game this season online and on-demand with enhanced viewing features, including the "All-22" coaches film. Get NFL Game Rewind.

» The Packers could easily be 10-0 on Thanksgiving, and with home wins over San Francisco this week and Atlanta next week, the Lions might be right there with them.

» Made this point before: I totally understand the Seahawks sticking with Tarvaris Jackson, and if it helps other guys develop in the offense as intended, it's completely justifiable.

» Rob Ryan's Dallas defense ranks fourth in the NFL, and one reason why is that he's done his job in helping young players like Anthony Spencer and Mike Jenkins rebound from a horrific 2010.

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer

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