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The year was 1984. The Cold War was still on. Marv Levy was coaching the Chicago Fire in the USFL. The AFC won a Super Bowl for the last time.

This year, the AFC sees its long drought ending. Its obvious standard-bearer is Denver, but the Broncos are a John Elway injury away from becoming just another good team.

Option B is New England, whom the Bills just experienced. The question is how good are the Patriots? Are they the team that feasted on Buffalo's carcass, or the ones whacked, 34-13, in Denver the week before?

New England always seems to lose to Denver, so using the Broncos as the sole gauge can be misleading. The last time the Pats beat Denver was in 1980. The Broncs have won the last 10. The closest score in the last four was 20-3, in 1991.

The Patriots weren't kidding themselves in approaching the Buffalo game. "No matter how good people say you are," said veteran tackle Bruce Armstrong after the victory, "you've got to produce. What was important was for us to get back to playing like we were capable of. We had to show which was the true team -- the one in Denver or the one which won its first four games?"

Armstrong did his part. In the third quarter, matched against Bruce Smith one-on-one, he bent Bruce like a sapling as Curtis Martin cruised outside his block for a 26-yard touchdown which made the score an unreachable, 26-0.

"Did we want to be 8-8 or win the Super Bowl?" was Dave Meggett's rhetorical question. "Today was a day when our defense wanted to redeem themselves. This was the first chance to do it and they responded with a big game."

We consult a baseball man, Hall of Fame Manager Earl Weaver, about excellence in pro sports. "How good you are," contended Weaver, "depends upon who you're playing."

Against the Bills, the Pats had their way, but Buffalo lost its quarterback, Todd Collins, early, and under the best conditions the absence of a viable offensive line makes them also-rans.

There is a vacuum of leadership on the Patriots now. Drew Bledsoe, the quarterback, has special skills. He chafed under Bill Parcells, the ex-coach, but still excelled. For all his talent, Bledsoe's focus gets fuzzy at bad times. Then, too, the new coach, Pete Carroll, is praised by his athletes as "a player's coach," usually an unintentional kiss of death. In Carroll's first five games, the Pats averaged more than eight penalties a game.

That's why Armstrong and Meggett assumed stronger roles in the dressing room. They challenged their colleagues to be disciplined, and against Buffalo they had just one penalty.

But questions about the Pats go beyond the psychological. Around the NFL, the feeling is that there also are chinks in the football armor.

"Against a team (Buffalo) that is the perennial leader in sacks, they were kept off me," Bledsoe said in praise of his blockers. But for all the time they gave him, Bledsoe didn't tear apart the Bills (14 of 27, 181 yards, two touchdowns), considering his favorable field position.

Martin is most effective running inside, but against some opponents that's a tough proposition, since the New England guards, Max Lane and Todd Rucci, are somewhat suspect.

Still, this is a team with enormous potential for explosion. Last year, they used their 34-8 loss to Denver as a springboard, winning six of their next seven before losing the Super Bowl to the Packers.

There will be plenty of opportunity for the Pats to keep proving they belong among the NFL's tiny cadre of elite squads. Sunday it's the Tuna Bowl, Part II, against Parcells' Jets.

After that, things get serious with consecutive games against Green Bay and Minnesota. A home-and-home series with Miami remains, along with trips to Tampa Bay and Jacksonville and a late showdown with Pittsburgh.

Long before Christmas we should have an idea how good the Patriots really are.

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