The New England Patriots wanted to come out this season and prove that their Super Bowl title was no fluke, and they certainly accomplished that by manhandling the Pittsburgh Steelers and New York Jets at the start of the 2002 season.

But the Patriots have done it in a new, and unexpected, way. Whereas the Patriots wore down opponents last season with a conservative offense and a punishing and opportunistic defense, New England has thrived this season because of an explosive passing game.

That has come as a big surprise to the many of thought Tom Brady was more of a caretaker of the offense last year as opposed to the driving force.

No one can make that argument this season. After the first month of the 2002 season, only Drew Bledsoe — remember him? — had thrown for more yards than Brady.

Simply put, Brady has built on last year's success and quickly become one of the best quarterbacks in the game.

He has thrown with accuracy so far this season and taken full advantage of a much-improved receiving corps.

The Patriots rebuilt their corps of tight ends in the offseason, signing Cam Cleeland and Christian Fauria as free agents, and drafting Colorado's Daniel Graham in the first round.

The wide receiver corps has only one new significant addition, that being second-round pick Deion Branch. But he has been simply sensational early on, as evidenced by his selection as the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Month for September.

New England is averaging over 325 yards passing per game, and if in the Patriots' loss to San Diego last Sunday Brady passed for over 350 yards.

Not only has Brady been accurate, he's also been very difficult to sack because he gets rid of the ball quickly. The Pats have allowed only six sacks so far this season, one of the best showing in the NFL in that department.

And this is being accomplished with an offensive devoid of marquee talent.

The running game has done its part as well, with Antowain Smith averaging over 4 yards per carry and on pace for a second consecutive 1,000-yard season.

Defensively, the Patriots' problems stopping the run have been well documented after Priest Holmes rushed for 180 yards two weeks ago and LaDainian Tomlinson followed with 217 last Sunday.

Against the pass, though, New England leads the league by allowing only 172 yards per game and they have as many interceptions (6) as TD passes allowed.

The secondary, led by cornerback Ty Law and safety Lawyer Milloy and featuring former Dolphins Terrell Buckley and Ben Kelly as backups, is among the best in the league.

The Patriots also have an emerging star in defensive tackle Richard Seymour.

The weakness of the Pats defense, if there is one, is a lack of speed at linebacker, something exposed by both Holmes and Tomlinson.

The Patriots have good return men in Branch and veteran Troy Brown, although Brown is a question mark for Sunday's game because of a knee injury.

Punter Ken Walter has been very unimpressive so far this season, but Super Bowl hero Adam Vinatieri is as good a clutch kicker as there is in the NFL, even though he missed a key 41-yard attempt in the loss to San Diego.

The Patriots didn't get that much respect for a Super Bowl champion last season, but no one is overlooking them this year.

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