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Patriots face stretch of defining games

The Jets having been subdued Thursday night, Bill Belichick and his Patriots face a tough six-game stretch.Elise Amendola/Associated Press

This story was supposed to start like this: It's a good thing Patriots players and coaches got a little bit of time this weekend to take a deep breath, recover, and regroup, because their next six games will likely determine whether they're a true challenger in the NFL or not.

Then the Bears lost. At home. To the Dolphins.

And the Chargers lost to the Chiefs. At home.

So the team on the front end and the team at the back end of that six-game stretch showed they can be beaten, weakening the premise of this story a wee bit.

But despite the Bears' and Chargers' losses, the combined record of the next six teams on New England's schedule is still 28-13, and if you subtract Chicago's 3-4 mark, that becomes a more impressive 25-9.

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And oddly, all three of the Bears' wins have come away from venerable Soldier Field, and they're traveling to Gillette Stadium next Sunday afternoon. So Chicago might not be a pushover after all, although their most impressive road win was in Week 2, when they spoiled the 49ers' first game at Levi's Stadium. The other two wins were against the Jets and Falcons.

The key for the Bears, as it is in so many games, is turnovers. They turned the ball over just once in their three road wins, and their defense forced eight turnovers. In their four losses, those numbers change drastically — the offense gave up the ball 12 times, while the defense has just four takeaways.

On a Sunday conference call, Bill Belichick said the Patriots already have started to study the Bears, and what stands out to him is their offense.

"They're an explosive offensive team, got a lot of big-play players," he said. "Receivers, tight ends, quarterback, running back, a lot of guys that can hurt you and hurt you in a hurry. Defensively, a good front, a good pass-rushing team, active linebackers and secondary, play quite a bit of zone coverage. They don't give up a lot of big plays and they do a good job defensively of getting you off the field, with their front, causing negative plays, batted balls, turnovers off their zone coverages."

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After Chicago comes to town, the Broncos visit Gillette. Denver (5-1) pummeled the 49ers, 42-17, Sunday night and is 1-1 on the road, sporting a top-10 offense and top-5 defense.

The Patriots staged one of the most memorable comebacks in recent history last season against Denver, clawing back from a 24-0 halftime deficit to win in overtime.

The teams met again in the AFC title game, that game taking place in Denver, and Denver moved on to the Super Bowl.

New England's bye week comes after the game with the Broncos, and afterward the Patriots will head out on the road for three of their next four, against the Colts, Packers, and Chargers.

Detroit comes to Foxborough in Week 12.

It is not an easy stretch by any means, particularly that post-bye cluster.

At least, it looks like a tough stretch right now. It could change, of course, but seven weeks into the NFL season, the good teams have started rising to the top, and the bad teams have exposed themselves as just that.

After narrowly beating the Jets Thursday night, the Patriots are 5-2. But both of their losses are on the road, including the beatdown in Kansas City. As linebacker Dont'a Hightower noted on Friday, that isn't one the players want to remember but is the one that has stuck with them.

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And they might be stuck with it, either in the positive — as the game that jump-started a strong season — or in the negative — as a sign that perhaps they just aren't strong enough to contend this year.

We'll learn a lot more over the coming weeks.


Shalise Manza Young can be reached at syoung@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @shalisemyoung.