EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – No, these New England Patriots aren’t those New England Patriots, the ones who won three Super Bowls in four seasons from 2001-2004. So far, it doesn’t matter: They still win.

That’s what they did Sunday, squandering the better part of a 24-0 lead before holding on for a 24-17 victory over the very average New York Jets.

“We know how to finish,” said Tedy Bruschi, playing his first game after missing the entire exhibition season with a broken wrist.

Still, don’t think that these Patriots are that “dynasty.”

These Patriots right now are a team that doesn’t scare people, that doesn’t get them to give up and go home when they fall behind.

But they can get behind early, then come back and hang on to beat Buffalo. Or give up two quick touchdowns to the Jets and win because they had enough of a running game to play keepaway with an eight-minute drive that gave New York almost no time to mount a final rally.

That, in fact, demonstrated what is good about these Patriots, who can run, with rookie Laurence Maroney to augment Corey Dillon and keep his 31-year-old legs fresh. Dillon had 80 yards Sunday and Maroney had 65, the kind of time-consuming ground game that’s hard to overcome.

What isn’t so good about these Patriots are the receivers. David Givens left as a free agent (with little opposition) for Tennessee in the offseason, then Deion Branch held out through training camp and finally was traded to Seattle last week.

So Tom Brady completed just 15 passes to seven receivers Sunday, with the most, four, to good old (35) Troy Brown, who also doubles as kick returner, occasional defensive back, and – for one play in the preseason – third-string quarterback.

What also isn’t so good – what else is new? – is the secondary, especially the tackling.

The Jets, trailing 24-0, got their first touchdown on a 71-yard pass play from Chad Pennington to Jerricho Cotchery on what can only be described as a miraculous receiving effort. Cotchery managed to get snagged by two Pats, fell on top of Eugene Wilson, and then got away and ran another 30 yards for a score.

Nobody seemed angry at that. “A great athletic play,” said Bill Belichick, who remains New England’s resident genius.

The second Jets touchdown was another story.

That was a 46-yarder from Pennington to Laveranues Coles, who caught a short pass over the middle, zigged and zagged around and through five or six Patriots to get to the end zone.

“Great play by him,” said Mike Vrabel, another of the veteran Patriots and a coach in waiting. “But it showed why we’re not there yet. We’re fine on 85 or 90 percent of the plays, but then we start missing tackles. Not one tackle by one guy, but five or six tackles by five or six guys. And different guys on different plays. Not always the same ones.”

But again, the Patriots, especially the defensive veterans, make plays when they have to.

It was Vrabel and Richard Seymour who sacked Pennington on third down and forced New York to settle for a field goal when it was threatening to make it 24-21. How many times have we heard those names over the years? Vrabel, Seymour, Bruschi, Rodney Harrison.

“We’re teaching the new guys how we do it – how our system works,” Bruschi said. “It will take time.”

Some of the new guys indeed showed promise. Chad Jackson, the rookie receiver who missed most of training camp with a hamstring injury, demonstrated the promise so many noticed before the draft with two catches for 42 yards, including a 13-yard TD reception. And he nearly got another long touchdown; only a late tip by a beaten Andre Dyson kept him from making a huge play.

Bottom line?

The schedule has been easy and could stay that way, with a struggling Denver team going to Foxborough next week. Things get tougher with a trip to Cincinnati in Week 4, but no one else in the AFC East has shown much, most of all Miami, which was supposed to be New England’s main challenger, but dropped to 0-2 by losing at home Sunday to Buffalo.

So despite the absent faces – Givens, Branch, Willie McGinest, Adam Vinatieri – the Patriots carry on.

Maybe they’re not a Super Bowl team now, because Super Bowl teams don’t come close to squandering 24-0 leads against average (at best) opponents.

But let’s see what they are in December.


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