Devin McCourty and the Patriots defense has shown improvement during a three-game winning streak that has them right back in the hunt for the AFC East title. Jacob Kupferman/Associated Press

FOXBORO — The Buffalo Bills were supposed to run away with the division. The Miami Dolphins were supposed to be competitive. The New York Jets were supposed to stink.

The Patriots?

They were supposed to still be licking their wounds a year after losing Tom Brady.

Well, sitting at the midseason mark, one out of four ain’t bad. The Jets do stink.

But the rest?

Let’s start with Patriots, because after nine weeks of an 18-week season, the AFC East is looking like a two-team race between the Pats and Bills, who both have five wins. The Dolphins and Jets, meanwhile, are already on to next year.


After a slow start, the Patriots, who spent a ton of money in the offseason to rebuild a team that didn’t make the playoffs last year, have gotten their act together.

They’ve not only put themselves in position for a wild-card spot, but have made the Bills and the rest of the AFC take notice.

Beating the Browns on Sunday would cement their status.

Listening to the Patriots players in recent days, they clearly have their swagger back. More important, along with their established veterans, the newcomers have bought in and believe they’re on course for something special — even without Odell Beckham Jr., who is headed to the Rams.

“Everybody’s just getting more comfortable each and every week. Everybody’s in their role, and getting better in their role,” wide receiver Kendrick Bourne said Thursday. “So, we’re better as an overall group and everybody has been doing really well.

“The pieces are coming together, and we’re getting the results we want,” he went on. “That’s what we were looking for. It’s just definitely working out now. The energy’s better, the confidence is growing. The more we go on, the better we gotta get. That’s the mindset we’re going to keep.”


CBS analyst Charles Davis, who is calling Sunday’s game against the Browns, doesn’t need any more convincing. He definitely sees the Patriots as players in the AFC going forward.

“New England is totally back in the game and feeling like an early Bill Belichick New England football team,” said Davis. “They are playing tough defense, running the football with authority, playing around their quarterback. Before Tom Brady became Tom Brady, they took care of him, too. That’s how it’s going with Mac Jones right now. They are continuing to expand what he can do …There’s a lot of good going on in New England.”

In Buffalo, not so much.

While the Patriots are on a roll, the Bills have lost two out of their last three.

They sure talked a good game before the season started. They said they were focused on taking the next step after finally winning the AFC East last year. They were planning on succeeding the Patriots as the AFC’s next dominant team.

Well, heading into Week 10, they’re scrambling to get the egg off their collective faces.


How does a so-called contender lose 9-6 to the Jaguars?

The Bills, now sitting at 5-3, are searching for answers.

Their once-mighty offense is stuck in neutral, especially with no run game to speak of.

Josh Allen has come back to earth, and the Bills’ sizable lead in the division has shrunk to nothing with the Patriots knocking at the door.

Meanwhile, the Patriots are finally winning the close games. They’re finally making the type of plays that win games. And it all starts with Belichick’s defense.

After being embarrassed during the Week 6 loss to Dallas, the unit has turned it around.


Their once-leaky front is now a sturdy wall against the run, making offenses one-dimensional and easier to defend.

Offensively, meanwhile, the run game has taken off. At the outset, the Patriots figured to be a ground-and-pound team, especially with a rookie quarterback at the helm. With the run game now setting the tone, it’s taken some pressure off Mac Jones.

Defensive captain Devin McCourty believes the Patriots have only just started to hit their stride, and find their identity as a team.

“I think we’re still trying to get to a certain place. We’ve got five wins,” he said. “Who you are comes with more games and comes with doing whatever it is consistently.”

The Patriots, who had to integrate several rookies and many new players into the mix, have gone from falling short in critical situations, to coming out on top. But that’s where the consistency element comes in.

That’s where McCourty believes there’s more room to grow. The Patriots have to continue to prove their mettle against the good teams. Back-to-back wins against the Chargers and Panthers on the road was a start.


Now comes Cleveland, one of the most complete teams in the league.

“I think we saw the ups and downs, the bruises from getting to where we’re at now,” said McCourty. “But at some point, you have to build on who you are. Your identity is kind of out there, and I think that’s what we’re starting to form.”

How they fare against the Browns is another step toward forging that identity and establishing the Patriots as a true contender.

In fact, the next three games for both the Patriots and Bills are going to be pivotal in setting the course for both teams.

Those three games are what stands between them and their first matchup of the year.

Along with the Browns, the Pats will be in Atlanta for a Thursday night game, then host the Titans before the initial showdown with the Bills in Buffalo.

The Bills, meanwhile, take on the Jets, Colts, and Saints before the Week 13 contest.

For their part, the Patriots seem confident they’ll get to where they ultimately want to be. Winning two of the next three would help that mission.

“I’ve been saying it all year. We know who we got in the locker room,” said linebacker Matt Judon. “We know the type of team we have since training camp. And now, we’re just putting it together … we’ve been focused on the small details, while keeping our vision where it needs to be.”

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