I think the Patriots are just about past the "will catch up with them" portion of the season, as they managed to win five of the first six games, including their best test from the Saints. And presumably Rob Gronkowski will return at some point soon, which should ease some of New England's red-zone issues.
The thing about the rookies and other assorted off-the-radar types that Tom Brady is working with is they are winning while they figure it out -- a hallmark of good teams. It certainly has not been pretty. Even against the Saints, there were dropped passes, wrong routes being run -- the things that caused Brady so much frustration earlier in the season.
But the Patriots don't have to be running smoothly in mid-October. They need to have everything working in December and beyond, and especially after last Sunday's performance, I don't have much doubt that they will be there in January. The rest of the AFC East simply is not good enough to topple them yet. How far they can go -- particularly if Gronkowski and Danny Amendola continue to have injury issues -- is another question entirely. But when the playoffs start, those receivers will have a full season of work under their belts.
Which brings us to the Jets game. It's not as if the Patriots cut loose when the AFC East rivals played in Week 2 and New England won 13-10. There was an early 39-yard touchdown pass to Aaron Dobson, and that was pretty much it; the Patriots didn't even score in the second half. Brady threw for just 185 yards and completed just 19 of 39 pass attempts. So I'm not sure the Jets can do much better at containing him. The Jets might have won that game if only Geno Smithhad not imploded.
My guess is that the Patriots' offense and the trust between Brady and his receivers got a significant boost from that game-winning drive against the Saints, but the Jets' defense is very good, so I wouldn't expect New England to explode this time. The bigger question is what becomes of Smith, who has been as up and down as you'd expect a rookie quarterback to be (he's due for an "up" game) and will face a defense that lured him into three interceptions five weeks ago.
Aqib Talib was exceptional in essentially taking Saints tight end Jimmy Graham out of Sunday's game. Graham did not have a reception, and Talib is having a great season. (Though he hurt his hip and had to leave the Saints game, so let's see what that means in the long term.) But according to Pro Football Focus, Talib is just the fifth-ranked cornerback in the league, which certainly suggests he would not be a Defensive Player of the Year front-runner. I do not vote for postseason awards, but I asked one longtime NFL writer who has a vote about his list right now. His answer: Justin Houston, Eric Berry, Terrell Suggs, Talib, Richard Sherman, Kiko Alonso, Tamba Hali.
No doubt about it: Talib plays an integral role for the Patriots. And his return to good health becomes even more critical in the wake of the season-ending injury suffered by linebacker Jerod Mayo, the team's leading tackler and a true leader on the defensive side of the ball.
McCoy indeed deserves to be in the conversation -- if for no other reason than the Philip Rivers renaissance he has helped bring about. Rivers, who has never completed more than 66 percent of his passes in a season, boasts a 72.6 percent clip in 2013, and he's the league's second-rated passer, behind only Peyton Manning.
But there are a few things working against McCoy's candidacy ...
At 3-3, the San Diego Chargers are unlikely to make the playoffs because two teams in their own division are 6-0. And one of those teams -- the Kansas City Chiefs -- won just two games last season with many of the same players, which makes Andy Reid a near slam dunk for Coach of the Year honors if his team keeps going like this.
Schein: Houston, here's your problem
OK, back to the quarterback situation, which obviously is a mess. It's hard not to think Matt Schaub's incredible four-game streak of pick-sixes got into his head and wouldn't get out. And worse, now he has a lower leg injury. (I digress to note that I liked Brian Cushing's use of the word "barbaric" to describe fans who cheered when Schaub was hurt. Come on, Houston, you're better than that.)
I know people want Schaub replaced, even if he's healthy. I know they would love the local guy, Case Keenum, to step in. But let's get real. T.J. Yates took over in the third quarter of Sunday's debacle of a loss to St. Louis, and he was no better than Schaub has been, throwing two interceptions, one of them -- yes, you know it -- a pick-six. I understand the affection for Keenum, but he was undrafted out of the University of Houston in 2012 and hasn't played in an NFL regular-season game. He simply cannot be thrown to the wolves at Arrowhead Stadium, where the Chiefs have one of the league's best defenses and the fans just set a record for generating crowd noise. Schaub, if healthy enough, remains the Texans' best chance to win games. But pretty clearly, after this season is over, the Texans will have to reconsider everything.
And if things don't get better and the Texans don't stop embarrassing themselves, Gary Kubiak won't be the one figuring out the quarterback situation. I'm convinced that Bob McNair, who's as reasonable and patient as NFL owners come, doesn't want to ax Kubiak. But McNair also doesn't want to oversee a team that's routinely being humiliated.
What might bode poorly for Kubiak: His reputation is as a quarterback guru, yet he can't seem to figure out what has led to Schaub's decline (or how to correct it). That is when coaches earn their paychecks -- when things go south in the middle of the season and they must fix it. If he can't solve Schaub, and it takes down the team, Kubiak has failed at his most important job. If the Texans keep losing in this fashion, McNair's hand might be forced.