- Mike Reiss, ESPN New England Patriots reporter
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The picture has surprisingly become clearer through five weeks of the season.
If all AFC teams are a deck of cards, the New England Patriots are no longer the ace. But they remain close to the top of the deck.
In a league that prides itself on parity, it's somewhat remarkable that four teams can essentially be dismissed from the playoff mix already. Kansas City, Oakland, Cleveland and Buffalo look dreadful, with little hope for an in-season turnaround. Not to mention winless Tennessee enters Sunday's game at New England needing a win to retain any hope of a U-turn after a stunningly disappointing 0-5 start.
Eliminate those five teams, and what you have is an 11-team battle royal for six playoff spots. Has there ever been a season in which 30 percent of the deck was so easily discarded at such an early date?
One might even say it's generous to include Jacksonville and Houston, both 2-3, in the discussion.
As for the Patriots, CBS analyst Rich Gannon looks deeper than their 3-2 record when assessing the club.
"I've watched three of their games, and in my opinion, they're still the New England Patriots," he said. "The one thing that's clear is that they're obviously going through a transition, yet they've still been in every game with a chance to win. They lost a few close ones, and people say 'This isn't the same Patriots team.' I beg to differ."
While Tom Brady's return from torn left knee ligaments has been in the spotlight, Gannon believes another area shouldn't be overlooked in the team's uneven start.
"Every year things change -- personnel changes, there are coaching changes -- and he lost his playcaller in Josh McDaniels. They spent a lot of time together, and there is always a transitional period when there is a change there," Gannon said. "But Tom Brady is still Tom Brady. He's a premier quarterback in the league."
The premier team in the AFC looks like the Colts, who haven't missed a beat in the head-coaching transition from Tony Dungy to Jim Caldwell. Quarterback Peyton Manning has been remarkable, completing 73.5 percent of his passes, while rookie receiver Austin Collie -- a fourth-round draft choice from Brigham Young -- has been a find.
With games ahead against the Rams, 49ers and Texans, the Colts project to enter their Nov. 15 home showdown against the Patriots at 8-0.
Elsewhere, the Broncos (5-0) and Bengals (4-1) qualify as surprises. In the words of linebacker Junior Seau, those teams have given themselves a chance, building enough early cushion to absorb the inevitable hiccup they are bound to encounter at some point.
That's what the early part of the schedule is all about: teams must avoid digging themselves a hole so deep they can't recover. Just ask Tennessee, last year's No. 1 seed, which has dipped despite being more talented than the AFC's other cellar-dwellers.
The resilient Dolphins, meanwhile, have scrapped back after their 0-3 start with back-to-back wins. They appeared headed down the same path as the Titans, but the Wildcat, it turns out, still has sharp claws.
As the Dolphins have recovered, the Jets have slipped after an impressive 3-0 start, losing their past two. That has created a three-team cluster in the AFC East, which will only heighten the importance of division games as the season unfolds.
Where does all the movement leave the Patriots?
They're in the middle of the AFC deck, one of four teams at 3-2 looking up at Denver, Indianapolis and Cincinnati. While it hasn't been an overly smooth start and the running game has been inconsistent, what impresses Gannon is how they're still in the mix while significantly turning over their roster and undergoing a significant change at offensive coordinator.
"They're going through a transitional period, but the Patriots are going to be just fine," he said. "I still think they are one of the best teams; a team that will, and should, win their division."
The Patriots aren't at the top, but they're still among the elite teams in the uneven AFC.