Saturday’s Patriots game was the type of dominating performance over a good team fans have wanted to see all year long. It was as close to perfect a game as they have played. All signs continue to point to this team gelling as the season goes on and there is, with good reason, hope now that the playoffs could prove better than anyone had the right to expect at midseason.

Still, a word of caution. They were playing a team that had been on the road three straight weeks. They were playing a team that is not a powerhouse offensively. They were playing a team that has also lost to San Francisco and the Jets. They were playing a team that was missing its starting quarterback and replaced him with an inexperienced quarterback. They were playing a team that was without one of its top three defensive players. And they were playing a team that, while it would have been nice for them to win it for their own playoff hopes, if they were going to lose one the AFC game was the best choice.

What happened Saturday was the Patriots made that weak offensive team one dimensional. The Bucs are essentially a team that likes to run the ball and has only one true threat in the passing game, Joey Galloway. By taking away the run, the Bucs never had a shot. Once they were one-dimensional, and it was clear they would be early on, it was over.

But give the Patriots credit. The Bucs are a good running team. And once they get it going, their west coast passing offense becomes difficult to defend. The Patriots never gave them a chance and both their offense and defense helped in that regard, the offense by getting an early lead and big halftime lead, the defense by absolutely smothering the run.

The progress the Patriots have made from adequate against the run (which in truth they were for most of the season, it was their pass defense that killed them) to dominating coincides with a number of factors. The return of Tedy Bruschi, who had his best and most active game since him comeback Saturday. The return to health of Richard Seymour is another factor. He has simply been unblockable of late. Ty Warren has more resembled the last season Ty Warren in recent weeks and that is a good thing. Vince Wilfork has gone from inconsistent in the middle to a rock that can’t be moved or run inside on, with only some slight variations in technique as the apparent cause.

At the other linebacker spots, Roosevelt Colvin continues to resemble Lawrence Taylor in his prime. Mike Vrabel has seemingly adjusted to his move inside and is looking more comfortable and making more plays every week. Willie McGinest has his best game of the season Saturday and he and Colvin are making very dangerous bookends.

In the secondary, things have settled down. You have to like the physical, veteran presence Artrell Hawkins has displayed, even at his smallish size. Ellis Hobbs has done an excellent job at one corner and seems to improve weekly. Asante Samuel has been beat at times this year, usually matched up on the other team’s best receiver, but on the whole has been good and far better than some of the corners who were playing earlier in the year. Eugene Wilson looks more like his borderline Pro Bowl-self lately as well. Of course, its come against less than top quarterbacks, but they are dominating those quarterbacks as they should.

On offense, it wasn’t quite as great a performance. The running game struggled. They had the nice first drive, but then struggled for several drives in a row until they got some penalties on Tampa and some short field situations. Tom Brady wasn’t quite as sharp as he had been the week before and there was some heavy pressure on him there for awhile. Tom Ashworth is doing a capable job at left tackle, but you really need a more physical, dominating guy at that position and it’ll be nice to get Nick Kaczur back there or even, possibly, Matt Light at some point.

The special teams struggled a bit Saturday. A couple dumb penalties and coverage mistakes hurt them. They were fortunate to draw a penalty on Tampa Bay on a punt that went for a touchdown and was called back. The punting was not as strong as it has been, possibly affected by the cold weather. They’ll need to perform better on special teams in the playoffs.

Despite the drum beat that the Patriots are back, all problems are not solved. Obviously, they are playing much better than they had been. There is at least the chance they can do some damage and, perhaps, make a run for their third straight championship. But beating Tampa Bay was not unexpected. Perhaps the dominating fashion was unexpected, but as pointed out up the top, there could be reasons related to Tampa Bay that affected the manner the Pats won.

The playoffs are going to be an entirely different story. They’ll face tough teams, probably twice on the road. They’ll have three games total to even get to the Super Bowl. That isn’t an oft-traveled road for most Super Bowl teams. Even one off game can sink you. Every game is another chance to just be off your game slightly and you’re done. They still need to keep getting better. They still need to keep playing their prime players most of the time to stay cohesive and improving. There are areas to work on, their pass defense, their special teams, their running game in particular. This teams’ holes have NOT gone away, they have simply closed a bit. They have to continue to close them. But they’re headed in the right direction. They need to dominate the Jets and play well against Miami to end the season strong. Then they’ll head into the playoffs with confidence and flying high. It’ll make for an interesting January.