These Pa­tri­ots could be spec­tac­u­lar

USA TODAY Weekend Extra - - NFL - Nate Davis

Go ahead, gawk at Pa­trick Ma­homes’ next mind-blow­ing throw. Let your­self be­come in­fat­u­ated with the Rams and their “Mad­den” of­fense. Marvel at the NFL’s record scor­ing pace even as you cringe at those rough­ing-the-passer penal­ties or the league’s fail­ure to pro­tect non-quar­ter­backs from weaponized hel­mets.

But there’s one les­son we should prob­a­bly heed from the Pa­tri­ots: It’s not how you start, it’s how you fin­ish.

It would be an over­state­ment to char­ac­ter­ize a liv­ing, breath­ing and ev­ere­volv­ing dy­nasty as ly­ing in the weeds. But af­ter fly­ing un­der the radar while spend­ing an­other Septem­ber in­te­grat­ing new up­grades and wait­ing for a key piece of hard­ware to come on­line (New Eng­land is 7-5 in the sea­son’s first quar­ter since 2016), it seems Bill Belichick and Tom Brady have of­fi­cially com­pleted the roll­out of Pa­tri­ots ver­sion 18.0. This one could be spec­tac­u­lar. There’s still no head­phone jack or enough band­width to ac­com­mo­date a suf­fo­cat­ing de­fense, but the bells and whis­tles might just mean Brady will be tog­gling his most dy­namic set of weapons since Pa­tri­ots 7.0 went 18-0 in 2007 be­fore that Su­per Bowl XLII col­lapse. The cur­rent group won’t be chas­ing per­fec­tion af­ter get­ting whipped by the Jaguars and Li­ons last month, but it most def­i­nitely has a chance to pull New Eng­land even with Pitts­burgh by cap­tur­ing a sixth Lom­bardi Tro­phy.

Why such op­ti­mism for a team that sits in seventh place over­all in the AFC with a 3-2 record af­ter Thurs­day’s 38-24 de­feat of the strug­gling Colts?

The big guns are all back: Slot re­ceiver ex­traor­di­naire Ju­lian Edel­man re­turned from his four-game PED sus­pen­sion Thurs­day to play his first mean­ing­ful game since the Pa­tri­ots shocked the Fal­cons in Su­per Bowl LI (a knee in­jury cost him the 2017 sea­son). He posted a mod­est seven catches for 57 yards — Belichick ad­mit­ted Edel­man didn’t have a full of­fen­sive role against In­di­anapo­lis — but gen­er­ally looked like the player Brady typ­i­cally re­lies on to move the chains, de­spite one egre­gious drop in the first quar­ter that cost New Eng­land a first down.

Thurs­day also marked the first time since Nov. 27, 2016, that Brady, Edel­man, tight end Rob Gronkowski and run­ning back James White shared the same field.

“You can take us away from each other for 10 years and we’ll come back and be the same,” Gronkowski said.

The rookie: First-round pick Sony Michel looks like the real deal. The run­ning back missed the opener af­ter get­ting his knee scoped in Au­gust, but he is quickly de­vel­op­ing into a per­fect com­ple­ment to White.

Michel has scored the past two weeks and posted 100 yards of to­tal of­fense each time. Though he and White are both mul­ti­fac­eted, it ap­pears the for­mer Ge­or­gia star will get the bulk of the car­ries while White (team-high 10 re­cep­tions Thurs­day) will usu­ally han­dle pass­ing downs.

Flash: A re­ceiv­ing corps that has been in con­stant flux since the Pa­tri­ots dumped Brandin Cooks and Danny Amen­dola fol­low­ing their Su­per Bowl loss to the Ea­gles might fi­nally have a win­ning com­bi­na­tion — both be­cause Edel­man has re­turned and since it ap­pears Josh “Flash” Gor­don is now ready to con­trib­ute. (New Eng­land traded for the trou­bled Browns re­ceiver Sept. 17, even though he con­tin­ues to bat­tle sub­stance abuse demons, a rep­u­ta­tion for im­ma­tu­rity and a balky ham­string.)

But Gor­don an­nounced his pres­ence Thurs­day, reel­ing in Brady’s 500th TD pass — Gor­don was the 71st player to catch a TB12TD, an­other record — while be­ing brack­eted on a bro­ken play.

“To catch any pass from Tom is amaz­ing, let alone some his­tory-mak­ing catch or pass,” said Gor­don, who led the NFL in re­ceiv­ing yards in 2013 but was sus­pended for most of the next four sea­sons.

Brady has been lock­er­ing next to Gor­don and spend­ing ex­tra time while help­ing to in­te­grate the freak­ishly gifted re­ceiver into The Pa­triot Way.

If Gor­don can keep his per­sonal life in or­der and syn­the­size enough of the play­book, New Eng­land might fi­nally have its best mis­match re­ceiver since Randy Moss. Gor­don can phys­i­cally dom­i­nate down­field and in the red zone, and his abil­ity — in con­junc­tion with Gronkowski work­ing the seams, Edel­man mov­ing the sticks with his short and in­ter­me­di­ate pat­terns, White tear­ing off big chunks via dump-offs and de­signed routes and gad­get guy Cor­dar­relle Pat­ter­son on call for ex­otic du­ties — could al­low Brady to threaten ev­ery blade of grass like he never has.

De­tente: Af­ter months of scru­tiny about sup­pos­edly strained re­la­tions among owner Robert Kraft, Belichick and Brady, the quar­ter­back and Gronk (who was on the trade block) stayed away for most of the spring pro­gram. It ap­pears nor­malcy has re­turned. New Eng­land has won two in a row af­ter that 1-2 start, post­ing 38 points and more than 400 yards each time while dis­patch­ing the Colts and pre­vi­ously un­beaten Dol­phins in Week 4.

“There’s no quar­ter­back I’d rather have than Tom Brady,” Belichick said Thurs­day, not­ing how re­mark­able it is to throw 500 TDs.

Now, as Belichick might say, we’re on to Kan­sas City.

There are bugs to iron out of Pa­tri­ots 18.0. Gor­don has to prove he’s re­li­able. Gronkowski has 10 days to nurse a bum an­kle. New left tackle Trent Brown must con­tinue prov­ing a 6-8, 380-pounder can safe­guard Brady’s blind side; he’ll see Chicago’s Khalil Mack in two weeks. A de­fense that failed the Pa­tri­ots in Su­per Bowl LII must re­assert it­self.

And it’s time to start beat­ing good teams af­ter the Pa­tri­ots opened with a group that has gone 9-12 col­lec­tively.

The Chiefs, cur­rently 4-0 and sport­ing wun­derkind quar­ter­back Ma­homes, roll into Foxbor­ough, Mass­a­chu­setts, for a “Sun­day Night Foot­ball” date in Week 6 laden with play­off im­pli­ca­tions.

These Pa­tri­ots now seem ready to han­dle all com­ers.

WINSLOW TOWNSON/USA TO­DAY SPORTS

Pa­tri­ots quar­ter­back Tom Brady cel­e­brates with Josh Gor­don af­ter they hooked up for Brady’s 500th ca­reer TD pass Thurs­day.

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