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The Patriots are 5-2 because of Brady and the offense, and in spite of the defense, which ranks last overall and against the pass. Yes, behind even those 0-fers, Miami and Indianapolis.

Plus, New England’s shoddy defense has been a particular detriment on the road in the team’s two defeats. Against the Bills, it folded like a cheap tent in a Buffalo nor’easter, helping make a 21-point lead disappear, then bending and breaking in the final minutes.

Even worse, at Heinz Field, the Steelers came up with 57 varieties of exploiting a bad pass defense. With the exception of nose tackle Vince Wilfork, the Patriots were overwhelmed.

“I think our outlook is really that we’re going to get better,” said cornerback Devin McCourty, a Pro Bowler as a rookie in 2010 who now too often looks like, uh, a rookie. “We really don’t worry about what everybody else says. We’re just trying to get better and we’re trying to do it as soon as possible … trying to make sure it keeps coming over on Sundays, not just for a week, not for two weeks, but that we can be consistent stringing each game together.”

They’ve been consistent in the wrong way so far.

Yet the Patriots remain a prime contender. The Eagles seem to be reinserting themselves into that role, and they’re doing it with the ground game.

Throughout Reid’s 12-plus seasons in charge in Philly, and even when Brian Westbrook was in the backfield, the Eagles were a pass-first (some would say pass-happy) bunch. They still like to throw it, and who wouldn’t with Michael Vick’s powerful arm and such targets as spectacular DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin, steady Jason Avant and Brent Celek, and versatile RB LeSean McCoy.

The Eagles are most dangerous when they set the tempo with their running attack, though. Sure, Vick’s speed and elusiveness are uncanny skills for a quarterback _ even for some running backs _ and Reid readily recognizes it.

He also knows that a healthy McCoy is even more skilled a runner than Westbrook was, and nearly as good a receiver. Philly keeps opponents off-balance with its willingness to plug away on the ground; in the past, Reid often pulled the plug on runs early in games.

Reid insists the approach is no different this year.

“Really haven’t changed. Whatever works we’re going to do and the better you can mix it, the better off you’re going to be,” Reid said. “Obviously, if you get a lead, you’re probably going to end up running the ball a little bit more. That’s just how it ends up working out. Philosophy hasn’t changed.”

The action on the field says otherwise _ for lots of teams.


AP Pro Football Writer Rob Maaddi in Philadelphia and Sports Writers Will Graves in Pittsburgh and Tom Canavan in East Rutherford, N.J., contributed to this story.