Bill Belichick, Patriots up to old tricks

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The New England Patriots, at 6-1, have the best record in the National Football League. Just like we all thought, right?

The unexpected ride continued Sunday with a 28-18 dispatching of the Minnesota Vikings at festive Gillette Stadium, where a sellout crowd celebrated both Halloween and the performance of a young-but-growing-before-your-eyes team that continues to surprise.

Things are going so well that second-year cornerback Kyle Arrington joked that players are breaking Bill Belichick. They hadn't seen him smiling this much after games.

"Got to keep him smiling," Arrington said in the victorious locker room.

Admit it, you didn't think this was possible. The Patriots, who entered Sunday leading the NFL in rookie starts and have a roster with the second-most undrafted players, were supposed to be rebuilding. The words "bridge year" were popular on local airwaves after a Week 2 loss to the New York Jets.

Yet here they are atop the NFL heap after eight weeks, and it's easy to see how much Belichick is enjoying things. Veteran receiver Deion Branch acknowledged that it sort of reminds him of the old days, like the 2003 and 2004 Super Bowl seasons when the mentally tough Patriots were stringing together victories by rising up in critical situations.

One of the big differences between then and now is the makeup of the roster. The Patriots had a veteran team back then, and they are one of the NFL's youngest this year. Still, Branch sees some similarities.

"The guys in the locker room are level-headed and I think everyone is on the same page," he said. "I think the most important thing is that guys are taking in what Coach Belichick is giving us and believing in what he's saying. We go through the meetings Wednesday and Thursday, he breaks down the [opposition], and he gives us what he wants us to do to win the game. I think the guys are fairly receptive to that and we're going out and putting it on the football field."

It's no wonder that Belichick is so happy, especially when considering what unfolded in 2009 when his locker room was fractured and getting 53 players to pull in the same direction proved a challenging task.

The Patriots weren't a clutch team last season. They look like one this year, with the latest notch in their collective belt coming Sunday as they charged back from a 10-7 third-quarter deficit while showing a mental toughness that could take them far.

"I'm really proud of our football team," Belichick said. "It's a great job by our players. They really had a great week of preparation. They worked hard this week, and the things that we wanted to do, for the most part in the second half, we did. I felt like that was a big factor in us winning the game -- players being able to execute the plays we needed at the right time."

While Belichick might have been smiling, for those expecting him and his players to pat themselves on the back for their league-best record, well, that's not the way things work around these parts.

"We don't really care about that," Belichick said. "I don't think six games is going to win anything in this league. It will take a lot more than that."

But really, Tom Brady, did you think this is where the team would be at this point?

"I don't know," the team captain responded, which seemed to be a slight acknowledgement that the hot start has indeed been a surprise. "There are so many things that have happened over the course of this season -- injuries, a guy like Randy [Moss] leaving, bringing a guy like Deion [Branch] in and [Danny Woodhead] in, who have been big contributors for us.

"It's the way it's always been around here; it's really one game at a time, and to think past that won't work on this team," Brady continued. "With as many young guys as we have on this team, we need to think about today and then tomorrow and not get too far ahead of ourselves. There's a lot of football left."

When players return to work Monday, Belichick will probably remind them about the 2009 Denver Broncos, who started 6-0 and didn't make the playoffs. Belichick is at his best in that type of leveler mode, and one could already see things heading in that direction, less than an hour after Sunday's win.

Belichick actually compared facing Moss for the first time as similar to next week's game in Cleveland when the Patriots will oppose former New England tight end Benjamin Watson. Seriously.

As ridiculous as it sounds, the point Belichick made to players is that they have to keep striving, to keep looking ahead, because they can be even better than they've shown to this point.

The goal is to keep improving, and the Patriots, with the league's best record, seem to be doing just that.

"We're winning close games, we're winning tough games, and I think that's what it takes," Brady said. "You've got to win on the road. You've got to beat good teams. You've got to win when you're down. You've got to come from behind in the fourth quarter. You've got to keep the lead when you have it in the fourth quarter. Those are the things we talk about; Coach Belichick stands up here and that's what he preaches. I think it's nice when we can go out on the field and execute it."

And so, the 2010 New England Patriots' out-of-nowhere ride continues.

Next stop: Cleveland.

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPN Boston. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.