Here’s what I think.

I think the Patriots are undermanned this year. I think the Ravens and Chiefs, both of whom are likely standing in the Patriots’ path to the Super Bowl, are better teams. I think there’s no Super Bowl run in the cards this time. I think the odds of them making the AFC championship game for the ninth straight year are higher than they were the previous eight.

Here’s what I know: If the Patriots don’t make it to Miami, they’re not going down without a fight.

I know that now. I know that after Saturday night, when the Patriots took their squirt-gun offense, went up against the second-best scoring defense in the NFL in Buffalo…and suddenly looked like the Patriots we’ve become used to seeing. Tom Brady, taking a page from his 20s, slung the ball all over the field to pretty much every eligible receiver he had. Julian Edelman, who’s afflicted by what feels like five different injuries, took hit after hit and popped up for one big catch after another. The defense, minus a couple of hiccups, sparkled early, then came through late.


“Still Here” was last year’s motto. But after the 24-17 victory on Saturday, that was the message.

There was reason to doubt this would be the case. No, Patriots haters worn down by one trip to the Super Bowl after another, this doesn’t happen every year. The Patriots don’t wait until presents are practically under the tree to find their rhythm. In the nine previous seasons in which the Brady/Belichick Patriots went to the Super Bowl, New England went 61-10 in the months of November and December. Five of those years saw the Patriots finish the regular season with six or more wins in a row. One other saw them win eight of their last nine, another saw them win 11 of their last 12.

That is what happens all the time. The Patriots drop a few games when it’s still nice and warm out, and then by Thanksgiving they’re on their roll, picking up steam for the playoffs. The seasons that have featured late losses — think 2002, 2009, 2015 — have fallen short.

There was one exception, and that was last year. The Patriots struggled into December, then flipped the switch, found the run game and became a championship-caliber team in the nick of time. But that team had Rob Gronkowski instead of Matt LaCosse, and Trent Brown instead of Marshall Newhouse, and Chris Hogan instead of Jakobi Meyers or N’Keal Harry.

Talent aside, that team didn’t look as worn out as this one has. Brady each week has worn a sour expression originally of frustration, then apparently resignation regarding the receivers he has to work with. One of the most intense, competitive athletes of all time in any sport, his fire seemed to weaken with each incompletion to an unproven wideout or throwaway behind a faulty line.

It wasn’t just Brady. Edelman, seemingly the only receiver he could — or would — trust, has 97 catches and has seemed to get up slowly from each one. The running game deteriorated into what felt like a hopeless endeavor. The defense, so stifling early on that its players felt accomplished enough to give themselves a nickname, was gashed first by Lamar Jackson and the Ravens, then Deshaun Watson and the Texans, and then Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs.

Each week, it seemed another piece was falling off of the Patriot machine, and while the record was always good, New England had gotten there by feasting on the league’s worst teams, while looking outmatched against its best.

So no, this wasn’t looking anything like any memorable Patriots teams of the past, and given the growing uncertainty around Brady’s future with the team, it had the feeling of a funeral procession. Perhaps football’s greatest dynasty, petering out with an anemic offense, overhyped defense, inflated record and likely early exit.

And then, suddenly, the spark returned on Saturday. Brady was back in full vigor, screaming in his teammates’ faces not out of anger, but in jubilation. Sony Michel, tap-dancing for weeks looking for holes that weren’t there, ran hard through gaps that this time opened up. Receivers that couldn’t get open or run the right routes caught the ball with confidence and purpose. A Gillette Stadium crowd that weeks before booed the Patriots now spurred them on, recognizing the transformation it was seeing.

This isn’t just one man’s opinion. Go back and watch the reaction first to Rex Burkhead’s game-winning touchdown, and then the ensuing conversion pass to Edelman. Watch the players go wild, and then the coaches do the same on the sideline.

That wasn’t a celebration of one play. That was a celebration of something bigger at hand. We’re back, they seemed to say.

Back in the Super Bowl? We’ll see. I don’t think so. If the seedings and matchups play out as expected, Mahomes and the Kansas City offense are up first, and Belichick is still looking for the answer to that vaunted Chiefs attack. And if the Patriots survive that test, a trip to raucous Baltimore and a date with probable MVP Jackson will most likely be next on the docket. Combined score: Opponents 60, New England 36.

That’s a hard road. And the Patriots are flawed.

But they’re ready for the challenge.

I didn’t know that before. I know it now.

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