Asked to sum up his offense's development through the first nine games of the season following Sunday afternoon's dominant 20-10 dismissal of the Bills at Gillette Stadium, Patriots quarterback Matt Cassel took a team-first approach in his answer.
"We're winning ball games and we're in first place in the division," Cassel said, blindly disregarding the actual details of the query. "That's where we want to be."
But the answer may have been more enlightening than Cassel even intended. As the 6-3 Patriots enter Thursday night's meeting with the similarly 6-3 Jets -- a second straight battle to break what was a three-way tie atop the AFC East -- the story of New England is no longer about its backup quarterback, its developing offense or how the team could possibly get by without the game's reigning MVP.
No, the story now is about Bill Belichick's team once again sitting at the top of the standings in its division, preparing for a key midseason battle with a legitimate eye on the postseason.
Buffalo thought it was ready to challenge the banged-up defending champs in the East. Sunday it once again proved it wasn't. Now, it's New York's turn to test its mettle against the divisional standard. Cassel earned his first career win as a starter by beating the Jets at the Meadowlands in Week 2. Coming off a blowout win over the Rams, Brett Favre and Co. blow into Foxborough for Thursday night's meeting looking to take over sole possession of the division race.
But these Patriots, even Cassel-led, are far from ready to relinquish their hold on the East, one that's seen them take five straight titles. For the most part, the Patriots have been in far more of these key, playoff-type games than the Bills, Jets and Dolphins combined. But don't expect the defending champs to rest on their experienced laurels at this point, especially considering the injuries that have ravaged the roster and changed the face of the team this season.
"I never really want to go to that," linebacker Tedy Bruschi said of not counting on a been-there, done-that advantage in these key battles. "I never really want to say we're experienced so that gives us an advantage because it all depends on what you do on Sunday, or Thursday which is what it'll be this week. So to think that just because we've been in that situation before ... we've got a young quarterback, we've got a young running back. So we're sort of a different team now. We've got some younger guys that haven't been in this situation before. So I think we just need to take it as we go and take it one day at a time and prepare the best we can."
New or old, the Patriots know they're in the midst of the season's most important stretch. Sunday's win over the Bills kept New England atop the East but coming meetings with the Jets and Dolphins over the next two weeks hold the same weight.
"I think we see it as crunch time. You can call it that. You can call it an opportunity. It's the meat of our schedule," Bruschi said of the current stretch, one that could go a long way toward deciding the division winner. "Because I think the first goal you have going into a season, you want to win your division. I think that's what all us teams in the AFC East want to do. We're sort of log jammed right now, so I think the team that dukes it out the best and is standing up at the end is going to be the team that's going to be able to put on those (AFC East championship) hats and t-shirts."
BY THE NUMBERS: 37-10 -- Sunday's win over the Bills continued New England's AFC East success as the team improved to 2-1 inside the division on the season to remain tied with the Jets atop the standings. Dating back to 2001, the Patriots' 37-10 mark in the East is the best intra-divisional record in the NFL.