I'm constantly trying to take the temperature of Patriots fans. After a big win, we're all so pumped up. After a close loss, we're often in the "Eh, we'll be fine" camp. After a rare beatdown like the one we saw in Week 4 against the Chiefs, you'd think the sky was falling in New England.
Yes, up to that Week 4 debacle, things were rocky in Patriots Nation. Then the calendars switched to October and Tom Brady did what Tom Brady does. It's been a month in which Patriots fans have been floating on clouds, marveling at a lockdown secondary, an offense that rumbles to big early leads, and the full-throttle bombastic play of finally-healthy Rob Gronkowski.
I've got to admit, I was a little worried after the Chiefs game. If you say you weren't, you're lying. The Patriots looked terrible. Everything looked rosy with a bounceback rout against the Bengals the next week but, even though the Patriots reeled off their usual drubbing of the Bills and a that one, pesky close win against the Jets, I was biting my nails heading into this part of the schedule. I looked at the Patriots' schedule after the Jets game and got a little worried: Bears, Broncos, Colts, Lions, Packers, Chargers. So, basically going up against the best quarterbacks in the league. For a team that just lost Jerod Mayo and Stevan Ridley, I was concerned about whether the Patriots were going to struggle with consistency week-to-week.This stretch, I said to myself, is where we will see the real Patriots team.
With the bye week here, I must say my feelings toward this team have taken a complete 180 from a month ago. Now, I think if the Patriots lose a maximum of two regular season games the rest of the way, I'll be disappointed. Brady has looked like his old self, the offense is getting great stuff from guys like Brandon LaFell and even Julian Edelman has regrouped after a rash of bad drops and inconsistent play. What's been amazing is watching this defense evolve. The secondary has looked great in recent week, especially the big offseason additions of Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner. This is a defense which, despite losing its emotional leader in Mayo, is looking tougher and meaner week-to-week.
But the more good feelings I have about this team, the more I remind myself that they have to be tempered. Yes, the Patriots will make the playoffs. Yes, they'll probably be in line for a first-round bye now that the Broncos have been vanquished. But ask 100 Patriots fans what their playoff expectations for this team are and you'll get 100 different views. There is no doubt that they're looked shaky in the playoffs as of late, and a team like this that has been very Jekyll and Hyde this season worries me come January. Which Patriots team will show up once the calendars switch to 2015? Will Tom Brady continue this incredible ride? Are we bracing ourselves for the next big injury and how will the Patriots respond if another key player goes down? So many questions, so little answered. Had the crisis that revealed itself post-Chiefs loss been averted?
All I know is that we will know where this team stands once this brutal stretch is over. I'm interested to see how this defense stands up to quarterbacks like Andrew Luck and Aaron Rodgers, in particular. Going up against those two quarterbacks, considered among the best in the league, will determine whether that performance against Peyton Manning last week was a fluke or not.
Here's a quick rundown of things to watch for when the Patriots come back from bye:
PASS RUSH: Watch closely to how the Patriots' pass-rush evolves given the absence of Chandler Jones. Sacks have been hard to come by this season and the Patriots have added players like Akeem Ayers to help with that. The early returns on Ayers have been good, and players like Rob Ninkovich have stepped up alongside him in the linebacking core. Pressure on the quarterback is something the Patriots have lacked in the playoffs, and this unit needs to evolve in order to survive and advance in January.
OFFENSIVE LINE/RUNNING GAME: The much-maligned offensive line took its bumps in September but all throughout October, no one uttered a peep denouncing them. Have they truly improved or has Brady just been on such a role that he's masked their deficiencies. Besides Jonas Gray's breakout 86-yard rushing game against the Bears, the last four games have seen 23-, 43- and 33-yard rushing performances lead the team. This cannot continue to happen. Yes, the Patriots have gone very far on Brady's arm alone. But remember what LeGarrette Blount did last year? It helps to gave a good running game heading into the playoffs to open things up. More balance is needed.
TIM WRIGHT: This is a bit of a deep cut, but I'd like to see the Patriots utilize Tim Wright better. With Gronk making insane plays and racking up the touchdowns, this might seem like a nice thing to have instead of a need. But I believe Wright can be used as much more than a checkdown guy. Wright needs to be used as a chain-mover, the guy you can go to on 3rd-and-short or 2nd-and-long to eat up chunks of yardage in key situations. A guy like that keeps drives alive and means so much to your team beyond the box score. Yes, Gronk is the big-play guy and Edelman will continue to be a slot machine with LaFell providing support, but I'd like to see Wright have more of a key role in the offense than he's getting.
What are some things you're looking for from the Patriots after the bye? How do you feel about the team at this stage?