FOXBORO - There probably should be a little perspective injected into the euphoria over the New England Patriots' 3-0 start.
They've beaten three bad teams, and an honest look in the mirror would tell the Patriots that they're not that far removed from being a bad team as well.
But there's also a big difference between the Patriots and their vanquished foes from western New York, the New Jersey Meadowlands and the Gulf Coast of Florida - they are clearly improving.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are already in a downward spiral based in incompetence and internal controversy, and both contributed mightily to their 23-3 loss to the Patriots Sunday at Gillette Stadium. But to hang it all on the Bucs would be unfair to the Patriots, who clearly showed that their trajectory is on the upswing.
It was seen in the performance of rookie receivers Kenbrell Thompkins and Aaron Dobson, who combined for 10 catches, 93 yards and two touchdowns and played well enough to keep a smile on the face of their veteran quarterback.
It was also seen in a 156-yard rushing performance, most by the running-back triumvirate of LeGarrette Blount (14 carries, 65 yards), Brandon Bolden (3-51) and Stevan Ridley (11-35), and in the sterling pass defense of former Buccaneer Aqib Talib against Vincent Jackson, one of the more dangerous wide receivers in the NFL, who'd really be something if he just had a quarterback that could get him the ball with more regularity.
And yes, Josh Freeman did out-throw Tom Brady (236 yards to 225), but when it came down to the need to win the individual statistical battle to give his team a chance to win, Freeman fell far short. Four desperation attempts to keep drives going on fourth down failed miserably.
"We certainly had our opportunities," Tampa Bay coach Greg Schiano said. "I think we had something like 14 plays in their territory in the beginning of the game and came away with three points. I know the results, as you do, but to get to the bottom of the cause and why it's not working the way we believe it should, we have to study the tape. And it starts with me and we have to work through everything.
"There is no magic pill," he added. "We've just got to keep working and hopefully start to get into a little bit of a groove. We did some things at times, offensively, but then were unable to finish drives and you aren't going to win this league that way."
The Patriots didn't finish everything they started, either, but at least there were signs that the youngsters are starting to get it. Add to that the impressive return to the field of Bolden (100 all-purpose yards), and the impending return of Rob Gronkowski to the mix, and there were more reasons for smiles in all corners of Patriot Nation after the game.
Bill Belichick attributed at least some of the improvement to being able to practice. The Patriots didn't have a single full-pads practice between the opener at Buffalo and the home opener the following Thursday against the Jets.
"We had a good week of practice, and I think that showed up out on the field," Belichick said. "We had good contributions from all three phases - on offense, defense and special teams. I thought our situational football was better - third down, red area, fourth down, kicking game.
"I thought the players really did a good job this week and I'm happy that we had some of the success that we had today as a total team," he added.
And it wasn't just the improvement on offense. The Patriots did a good job of containing Bucs' back Doug Martin (20 carries, 88 yards) and they didn't let Jackson (three catches for 34 yards before exiting with a rib injury) and Mike Williams (5-65) kill them.
A big reason was the play of Talib, who took on Jackson head-to-head, and then switched over to Williams when the former left with the injury.
"(Talib) played him tough at the line of scrimmage," Belichick said. "Jackson made a couple, but Talib made a couple. It was a good, competitive matchup. Being able to keep him out of the end zone and just limit his catches was huge for us. But Aqib did a great job, he worked hard, he had a real good week of practice and it showed up in the game."
The Bucs struck first on a 30-yard Rian Lindell field goal with 1:47 left in the first quarter, following an earlier 38-yard miss. And, lacking confidence in Lindell thereafter, they failed to convert on fourth down from the Patriots' 34 early in the second quarter.
Brady (25-36, two TD, one interception) had been erratic on his first three possessions, but was 5-for-6 on his fourth. The march covered 66 yards in 11 plays and led to a bullet pass of 16 yards to Thompkins at the back of the end zone with 7:31 left in the half, giving the Patriots a lead they would not relinquish.
Another failed fourth-down try by the Bucs was the prelude to a 10-play, 62-yard New England march in which a 28-yard interference call against Dashon Goldson (on Dobson) set up a 5-yard scoring pass to Thompkins with 47 seconds left. And when Talib beat Jackson to the ball for an interception at the Bucs' 43 with 11 seconds left, the Patriots turned that into a 53-yard field goal by Stephen Gostkowski and a 17-3 lead at the break.
Brady had one poor red-area possession in the third quarter, with a 20-yard pass to Thompkins resulting in first-and-goal at the Bucs' 6. He missed Dobson over the middle, skipped a ball to Thompkins on the flat and then was picked off by safety Mark Barron on a throw somewhere near Zach Sudfeld over the middle. But the Patriots steadily added to the lead with a 46-yard field goal on their next possession, and a 33-yarder with 8:19 left to play.
The running game kicked in to keep the ball away from the Bucs for large stretches.
"We got in some long-yardage situations early second-and-18, third-and-15, and couldn't overcome them," Belichick said. "You're not going to overcome those very often. When we were able to keep it in third-and-twos, threes, fours, ones, we were able to convert more of those."
Belichick was quick to shift his focus after the win was in the books.
"Next week, we'll have a new set of challenges so we'll have to do everything well against Atlanta (8:30 p.m.; Ch. 7, 10)," he said. " Today it was red area defense and we made some third and fourth down stops when we needed to. They moved the ball, they had some long drives, but fortunately it didn't result in a lot of points."