Yes, New England is only 3-3, the three losses more than it has had in each of the last two seasons.

Still, the Patriots live, although their chances for an unprecedented third straight Super Bowl are chancy. They need to improve, stay healthy and win a weak division, but it can be done.

Does anyone want to go against a Bill Belichick-coached team in the postseason? Even at home?

The Patriots survived a killer early schedule at .500 despite a spate of injuries. They are tied for first in the AFC East and aside from Indianapolis, there is no one else in the AFC markedly better.

Now they get a bye week, enough time for Richard Seymour to heal and for Tedy Bruschi to start getting in shape.

After that, nothing threatens on the schedule other than a Monday night game in Foxborough against the Colts on Nov. 7. All six division games are ahead of the Patriots and each of the three other teams has issues of its own, especially at quarterback where Tom Brady’s counterparts are Kelly Holcomb, J.P. Losman, Vinny Testaverde and Gus Frerotte.

What Brady gives the Patriots is easily measured.

On Sunday, they trailed Denver 28-3 in the third quarter – in Denver.

With Jake Plummer playing consistently, the Broncos took advantage of huge gaps in the defense left by the absence of Rodney Harrison (gone for the season), Seymour (out the last two games) and, of course, Bruschi. No team, not even one coached by Belichick can hold up with those kind of players missing.

Yet somehow, the Patriots came back. With eight minutes left, Brady hit David Givens with a 7-yard touchdown pass to make it 28-20 – one score with the 2-point conversion – and Denver was clearly nervous.

New England got the ball back with enough time but failed to tie the game. OK, Brady can’t do everything.

But it was enough to scare the Broncos, a 5-1 team with a pretty good hold on the AFC West right now.

“They certainly showed what a champion is all about,” said John Lynch, Denver’s strong safety, who was on Tampa Bay’s Super Bowl winner three seasons ago.

Assume the Patriots go 11-5 or 10-6 and win the East.

Suppose Seymour and Bruschi come back, along with left tackle Matt Light – opponents have taken advantage of a left side of the offensive line manned by rookies Nick Kaczur and Logan Mankins. Although in truth, Light isn’t close yet with what is officially a mystery injury (“leg,” is all we get on the official reports).

Bruschi?

The linebacker whose stroke last winter left him sitting for the first six games will begin working out Wednesday.

“They tell me I can play. I feel like I can play. I know I can play,” he said Monday, although later, he acknowledged: “Right now I have to worry about practice shape. I don’t even know about game shape.”

Seymour, Bruschi and Harrison are clearly the irreplaceable defensive parts of the last three Super Bowl teams – Seymour on the defensive line, Bruschi at linebacker and Harrison in the secondary. Harrison won’t be back, but the other two could be and in decent shape by the playoffs. And just by suiting up, Bruschi provides a tangible boost in morale.

Beyond that, look at the potential playoff teams in the AFC and match them with New England.

Cincinnati and Jacksonville lack the experience, and the Patriots have beaten Pittsburgh and Indianapolis regularly, taking two AFC title games in Pittsburgh. Despite playing well Sunday, Plummer has yet to prove he can win regularly, and the Broncos probably wouldn’t be thrilled to see the Patriots again.

And suppose they get San Diego back as a wild-card team in Foxborough for a first-round game? The Chargers beat them 41-17 there two weeks ago. In this case, it would likely be in January – the first game was in weather more like what they’d get in San Diego.

It’s a long way from 3-3 to a third straight Super Bowl. But if those threes align, don’t write New England off yet.

AP-ES-10-17-05 1545EDT


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