Reggie Roberts: Help us understand how the Patriots — with injuries to many of their key contributors — are off to a 3-0 start heading into Sunday night's game against the Falcons at the Georgia Dome.
Mike Reiss: The main thing the Patriots have been able to do is come through in the critical situations. In the season opening 23-21 victory over the Bills on the road Sept. 8, it took a clutch drive late in the fourth quarter to earn the win. In the 13-10 win over the Jets in the home opener on Sept. 12, the defense had to come up with multiple stops in the fourth quarter to preserve the win. Either of those games could have gone the other way, which reflects how thin the line is between winning and losing in the NFL. Then the Patriots turned in their best performance of the season in a 23-3 home win over the Buccaneers on Sept. 22. One lingering question is if the Patriots can get the same result against better competition, which is why many are looking to Sunday night against the Falcons as the best test of the season for them to date.
RR: What's going on with tight end Rob Gronkowski and wide receiver Danny Amendola and what is their status entering Sunday night's game?
MR: Gronkowski has yet to play this season as he works his way back from multiple surgeries on his left forearm this offseason, in addition to one back surgery. But he is clearly making progress, as he was upgraded from doubtful the first two weeks of the season to questionable last week. This is as close as he's been to suiting up, so no one would be surprised to see him on the field Sunday night. As for Amendola, he was doubtful on the final injury report last week with a groin injury. Watching him at the start of practices last week, it is clear he hasn't been close to 100 percent.
RR: The Giants, Redskins, Vikings, and Steelers have all begun the season 0-3. Which of these four teams has the capacity to get things turned around and make a push towards the 2013 NFL playoffs?
MR: That's a tough spot to be, as we know that only three percent of teams starting 0-3 have made the playoffs since the postseason field was expanded to 12 teams in 1990. Only the 1981 Jets, 1982 Buccaneers (strike-shortened season helped them), 1992 Chargers, 1995 Lions and 1988 Bills were able to rebound from an 0-3 start. If I had to make an educated guess on which of the above-mentioned teams might be able to add its name to that list, I'd pick the Giants. One of their main issues, turnovers, seems most correctable. Plus, Tom Coughlin is one of the best in the business and I think they'll find a way to get their offensive line straightened out to get that offense back on track.
RR: You got an up close and personal view of another team Falcons fans pay close attention to — the 0-3 Tampa Bay Buccaneers. What's gone wrong in Tampa Bay and what are your thoughts for that team as the season wears on?
MR: Their first two games, similar to the Patriots, could have gone either way. They just had linebacker Lavonte David make a terrible mistake in the opener with a late hit to set up the Jets' winning field goal. That game was right there for them to win. Then in the Week 2 loss to the Saints, they just needed to make one play to put the Saints away, but they couldn't do it, opening the door for New Orleans' comeback on the final drive. So it comes back to the thought that the line between winning and losing is often thin in the NFL. And while the result was more lopsided against the Patriots, they controlled the first quarter so I'd caution anyone from overlooking them. All that said, it's clear there is a disconnect of some kind between coach Greg Schiano and quarterback Josh Freeman. This is Freeman's fifth season after he was drafted in the first round. He should be ascending, but Schiano and his coaching staff haven't been able to get the best out of him this season. When the quarterback struggles, it's hard to win in this league.
RR: Sunday's game will feature two of the NFL's elite passers in New England's Tom Brady and Atlanta's Matt Ryan, who is 34-7 as an NFL starter at home. What kind of game are you expecting to see?
MR: A very entertaining game. The first thing for me, when it comes to the Falcons, is thinking back to how things changed for the franchise in 2008 when owner Arthur Blank brought in the new regime, led by general manager Thomas Dimitroff and head coach Mike Smith. The foundation was set at that point. I knew Thomas from his time with the Patriots and had no doubt he would build the team the right way. People might forget now, but Ryan wasn't considered the slam dunk draft pick in 2008 (the quarterback-needy Dolphins, who had the No. 1 pick that year, passed on him). That's a bold franchise-shaping decision by Dimitroff, which I think reflects six years of solid work. And I can see why Mike Smith has been so successful because he has a great feel for personnel and managing a team, which I first learned about from his days as Jaguars defensive coordinator. So this is a long-winded way of answering the question, but I think when you stack up two organizations who have top people leading the way, along with star quarterbacks, it sets up an exciting matchup. Both teams are banged up a bit, but I expect both to put forth their best performances Sunday night.
RR: Who is the most surprising team to you after three weeks of the 2013 season and who is the most disappointing?
MR: Most surprising would be a tie between the Chiefs and Dolphins. I definitely underestimated the talent on the Chiefs' roster, as well as the impact that quarterback Alex Smith would have on the team. As for the Dolphins, I had my doubts about second-year quarterback Ryan Tannehill and all the changes that the franchise made over the offseason, but to win two opening games on the road and then come back with a game-winning fourth-quarter touchdown drive against the Falcons at home in Week 3 was something I wasn't expecting. As for most disappointing, I'd lean toward the Redskins (0-3). Two of their losses came at home, the defense looks suspect, and quarterback Robert Griffin III doesn't look completely comfortable in his comeback at this point.
RR: And finally, give us your take on the 3-0 Chiefs, who rolled into Philadelphia last week and came away with a convincing win over the Eagles. Are the Chiefs a playoff team?
MR: I think they will be in the mix for a wild-card berth. It's going to be tough for them to keep pace with the Broncos in the AFC West, but I've always felt Arrowhead can be one of the NFL's best home-field advantages when the Chiefs are playing well. You have to like the way they're playing defense and taking care of the ball on offense.