Replicating Brady's steady play tough for young Patriots

PITTSBURGH -- Rob Gronkowski's eyes said one thing, while his mouth said another.

Gronkowski's eyes beamed a message of through-the-roof excitement, just as one would expect from a rookie tight end that had just caught three touchdown passes in a nationally televised game. They talked about a 21-year-old kid living the dream, of needing only nine games to make his mark on one of the most successful franchises in NFL history, of him and his New England Patriots teammates owning a share of the best record in the league.

How cool is that?

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The stuff coming out of Gronkowski's mouth was far less exciting: "We practiced hard all week as a team … I just had to go out there and do my job … When you get the opportunity, you have to step up ... It was a great team win."

The contrast told you everything you needed to know about the state of the Patriots.

At 7-2, they're well positioned in the battle for the AFC East crown and home-field advantage in the playoffs with the New York Jets, the only other AFC team with that record. But with an offense and defense ranked in the lower portion of the league, and a team just as capable of being embarrassed in one game (the 34-14 loss to Cleveland in Week 9) as it is of dominating in the next (Sunday night's 39-26 pounding of Pittsburgh), the Patriots' fortunes are mostly in the shaky hands of a bunch of kids trying to play grown-up football. They try their best to keep their emotions in check and give what is known within the team as "Patriot answers" to reporters' questions.

Consistency can be hard to come by, especially on the field. Case in point: Gronkowski was a key contributor in the debacle at Cleveland, having a part in a muffed opening kickoff and fumbling near the goal line. Against the Steelers, he was virtually unstoppable.

The performance against the Browns provided extra motivation in preparing for Sunday night's game.

"With a loss like that, you had the feeling, everyone had the feeling, and no one liked that feeling," Gronkowski said.

No one hated it more than Tom Brady, the second-ranking authority figure on the Patriots after coach Bill Belichick. Brady was furious with his own poor play against the Browns. He took it upon himself to not only make amends for it against the Steelers, but also to make certain that Gronkowski and the rest of the younger Patriots remained properly motivated for the enormous task of winning at Heinz Field.

After a three-yard touchdown run late in the third quarter, Brady emphatically spiked the ball in the end zone. He further asserted himself with fiery exchanges with teammates before and during the game.

"I think part of being a quarterback is making sure that everyone's into it and there's a level of concentration and focus that you need on the road," Brady said. "I thought all the guys played really hard and stayed focused."

The question is, can they keep it up, week after week, through the rest of the season?

They've got answers

» The New York Jets, because of the balance they've shown in their running game at a time when ground success figures to become increasingly important. There had been concerns about aging LaDainian Tomlinson wearing down, but that's less likely to happen when he and Shonn Greene share the load as they did vs. Cleveland (129 rushing yards combined on 20 carries for Greene and 18 for Tomlinson). Counting their combined nine receptions for 75 yards, they produced an average of 4.3 yards on 47 touches.

» The Atlanta Falcons, because the combination of Matt Ryan and Roddy White looks unstoppable. It's hard to imagine the St. Louis Rams doing anything to slow either down in Week 11.

» The Chicago Bears, because of the nice balance they've developed in their passing game. Jay Cutler doesn't have any true favorite, as he demonstrated once again in the victory against Minnesota. He completed passes to nine different receivers, and his top four targets were Johnny Knox (five catches), Devin Hester (four), Greg Olsen (three) and Earl Bennett (three).

They've got questions

» The Arizona Cardinals, because for all of the talk about how much they miss Kurt Warner at quarterback, they also have severe problems on defense. They have given up 261 points, which is the most in the NFL.

» The Kansas City Chiefs, because since roaring out to a 3-0 start, they have gone 2-4 and are beginning to look like a young, immature team that has a whole lot of growing to do.

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» The Cincinnati Bengals, because of their general sloppiness (five turnovers against Indianapolis) and habit of fading late in games.

Observation points

» Even with the typical one-game bounce that a team receives immediately after a coaching change, it seems very hard to believe that Jason Garrett needed only a matter of days to bring about the improvement in the Cowboys that Wade Phillips couldn't through the bulk of the first half of the season.

Phillips didn't run the tightest of ships, which was something Garrett promptly set out to change. Still, seeing that Cowboys offensive explosion against the New York Giants makes you wonder where it was hiding while Garrett ran only that side of the ball without interference or involvement from Phillips, who kept most of his focus on defense.

My sense is that the outcome probably was a bigger indictment of the performance of the Giants than it was an indication that the Cowboys have suddenly figured out how to play.

» Brett Favre's season is noteworthy for all of the wrong reasons. Besides the Jenn Sterger investigation, there is the fact he has thrown 16 interceptions in nine games, putting him on pace to fall just short of matching his career-high of 29 picks from 2005. Sticking with him seems to enhance the chances of another Vikings loss. And that would ring the weekly alarm on the Brad Childress Firing Watch.

» As fluky as it was for his Hail Mary throw to be unintentionally batted into the hands of one of his receivers for the winning touchdown, Jacksonville quarterback David Garrard isn't exactly a stranger to strong play late in games. He has consistently managed to elevate his game during crunch time, with an NFL-best 112.1 passer rating in the fourth quarter entering Week 10. Garrard also hasn't been so bad in the earlier stages, either -- particularly in the past two games.

» Are the Jets so good that they can play poorly and still win? Or are they really not the elite team that some of us think they are, but just good enough to dispose of lower-end opponents? Stay tuned.

» After that forgettable performance against the Bills, the Lions no longer can wear that "team with the promising future" label they had for much of the season. Being without Matthew Stafford hurts, but it doesn't excuse the Lions for being so sloppy on offense. The repeated penalties on the line aren't exactly a ringing endorsement for the job that coach Jim Schwartz and his staff are doing.

» The Green Bay Packers are rested, and figure to be ready to get serious about taking firm control of the NFC North. The Bears, with whom they share first place, aren't going to make it easy. They look sound on both sides of the ball, and that was good enough to beat the Vikings in Week 10. Green Bay, and especially its pass rush, could turn its Week 11 game vs. Minnesota into an ugly affair.

» The Lions might have the NFL record for road futility with 25 losses in a row away from home, but it's worth noting that the Vikings haven't won a road game since Nov. 1, 2009.

» Kansas City's Todd Haley should know better than to pass up a post-game handshake in favor of a midfield scolding of Josh McDaniels for still having his team go full throttle on offense and defense late in the Chiefs' 49-29 loss to Denver. This isn't high school or even college, for that matter, where there is more sensitivity toward embarrassing the opposition. In any game, but especially one in the division, the only reason a coach should ever be inclined to pull back is to preserve the health of his players. What Haley did came off as whining. Haley did apologize for not shaking hands with McDaniels on Monday.

Four intriguing games for Week 11

Oakland at Pittsburgh: It has been such a long time since the Raiders and Steelers have played a meaningful game, which is sad considering how intense this rivalry once was. However, thanks to the Raiders' surge back to relevance and the Steelers still being somewhat of a heavyweight (Sunday night's beat-down notwithstanding), this game merits a reasonable amount of attention. With a week to enjoy a three-game winning streak, and for Jason Campbell's hot quarterbacking hand to possibly cool off, will the Raiders still be the team that turned around a 1-3 start? Did the Patriots' surgical dismantling of the Steelers' defense give the Raiders and other opponents a blueprint for how it's done?

Indianapolis at New England: You can't ask for more of a marquee matchup than this game offers. Call it the "Nos. 1 and 1A Quarterback Bowl." The respective fan bases will make predictable choices, but the rest of us looking at it objectively would have to say that the Colts' Peyton Manning is the best quarterback in the NFL and the most obvious choice for league MVP. The Patriots' Tom Brady is a not-too-distant second. Like Manning, he has willed his team into the upper-echelon, and the contract extension Brady signed just before the season is what the Colts are using as the starting point for the long-term deal to which they are hoping to sign Manning (which isn't expected to happen until after the season).

N.Y. Giants at Philadelphia: Was that more than the Giants simply getting knocked over by the emotional wave brought about by the Cowboys' coaching change? They did have some injuries, particularly on the offensive line. But the Giants still figured to perform better, especially at home. So much for that best-in-the-league label some of us (including yours truly) slapped on them after their fifth win a row. Their pass rush suddenly disappeared against Jon Kitna, who shouldn't be that big of a challenge to bring down. It's hard to imagine that it is going to be any better with Michael Vick, arguably the greatest scrambler the game has seen, moving as well as ever.

Denver at San Diego: With a division as competitively balanced as the AFC West, one game can make a world of difference. And that was what happened with Denver beating up on Kansas City. Not only did the Broncos end a four-game losing streak, they find themselves only two games out of first. If they truly did fix what was ailing them during their Week 9 bye, and Kyle Orton maintains the groove he found against the Chiefs, the Broncos could begin a nice run through the second half. Of course, the Chargers appeared ready to do the same heading into their Week 10 respite.

Follow Vic Carucci on Twitter @viccarucci.

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