Entering the bye week the Patriots are 4-1 and hold command of the AFC East. But it’s funny, when you watch the sports shows the Partriots are always listed in the top-5 or top-10, always expected to make the playoffs, yet somehow no one seems to take them seriously. So let’s take a look see at where this team is.
Defense: They’ve been giving up some big plays in the secondary, but have yet to give up more than 17 points in any game. Even high-scoring Cincinnati couldn’t get it done against the Patriots. Last week against Miami the turn-overs started coming like days of old. And the run defense is pretty good.
Rodney Harrison is looking more like his old self too. Plus add in Junior Seau as a veteran linebacker flying around the field and this defense could be pretty tough to deal with by mid-season.
Offense: This is a night-and-day situation. The running attack is great. Maroney, Dillon, and Faulk. Plus Evans now chipping in and Mills and Pass in the wings. The offensive line is doing real well except against teams like Denver which lead the league in defense. Maroney will be incredible once he gets more experience – he has all the markings of a Pro Bowl running back.
The passing attack is a work-in-progress. The only receiver left from last season is the ever-reliable Troy Brown, now in his 14th season. Bam Childress is kind of Troy Brown Junior – same size, same style – but he’s on the practice squad. The Pats added Reche Caldwell in the offseason, Chad Jackson in the draft … and Doug Gabriel and Jabar Gaffney as free agents since the Deion Branch fiasco. That’s three #2 picks, plus Brown and Childress. Give this group 4 or 5 games to settle in and get in sync with Brady and this could be the best receiver corps the team has ever had.
Brady has been off his game most of the season, but his spirits have been good since the Cinci game. I think once he and the new receivers work the bugs out he’ll be one happy camper.
Special Teams: Vinatieri is gone, but he’s been injured most of the season for Indy. So I’m thinking the Patriots front office knew something no one else did. Gostkowski is finally coming around on field goals and his kickoffs are boomers which usually result in touchbacks. We have a lot of players who can return kicks – from the veterans like Brown and Faulk to the new guys like Maroney and Willie Andrews. And guys like Mike Wright are lettings us block kicks for a change. So special teams looks good.
Coaching: Belichick is still the man in charge, so the team is still solid with good chemistry and everyone committed to working hard. The playcalling is still kind of bland and sometimes questionable. But they’re still managing the game well and still retain that Patriots hallmark of having players fill multiple responsibilities.
OK. So where does the team stand in regards to the AFC and the league. The Pats are 4-1. The “sure to take over the division” Dolphins are 1-4. The Jets and Bills are 2-3. So, basically, the Pats have the division if they just keep doing what they’re doing. Barring tons of injuries or a complete breakdown they’re as good as in the playoffs.
The AFC North is not what people expected this year. The Steelers are 1-3 and suck. They have that deer-in-the-headlights look of a team that doesn’t know what’s happening to them. They may turn it around, but a Wild Card is the best I expect for them. The Ravens lead that division at 4-1 and are tough to beat. Cinci is 3-1 but totally immature. Between the troubles with the law and their complete denial of how the Patriots beat them indicates that all it takes is a couple more losses for this bunch to lose their poise and their edge.
The AFC South … one word … Indy. At 5-0 they’re repeating their usual dominance of that division. Houston sucks as usual, but Jacksonville could easily be 4-1 instead of 3-2, they should not be overlooked. Will Indy win it all? Nope. Run defense bites and Manning can’t carry the whole team for 12 more weeks. The Titans are 0-5 … what happened to them?
The AFC West has San Diego and Denver at 3-1 on top. Denver is tough to read because they’re doing it all on defense – they only have 49 points on offense all season and Plummer has a tendency to throw the INT. San Diego still has trouble finishing games. The Raiders are 0-4 with a tough schedule – they’re toast.
So odds are that the Pats will face some combination of Indy, Cinci, Baltimore, Denver, and San Diego. Of that bunch, Denver is the only one I worry about – especially if they have the home field.
The NFC is looking better than last year. Philly is and New Orleans lead their divisions at 4-1. The Bears are 5-0 and if they keep it up will be the favorites to win it all. A Bears-Pats Superbowl rematch would be awesome. St. Louis leads the West by a game over Seattle, but that probably won’t last. I don’t expect either of those teams to last past the first round of the playoffs.
What’s a shock in the NFC is Tampa at 0-4. Detroit at 0-5 and Arizona at 1-4 is no surprise, but what happened to Tampa?
At the start of the season a lot of “experts” picked Dallas to be going to the Superbowl. And why not – they have The Tuna (Parcells) as coach, Bledsoe at QB, and TO. Yeah, right. The ‘Boys are 2-2, TO is more productive at generating press than points, Bledsoe still throws to the wrong team too often, and Parcells is still a blow-hard who somehow gets credit for being smart. What may keep them in the hunt is their schedule – they play Houston, Arizona, Tampa, and Detroit still – which they should win. So if they can at least split the other 8 games against good teams they could end up 10-6. And then get destroyed in the first round of the playoffs. Of course, the Giants and Redskins may have other ideas – it only takes a game here or there to keep Dallas out of the playoffs.
The only NFC team I worry about the Pats being able to beat in January is Chicago. Belichick’s teams start to peak in November … when everyone else starts choking. So the Pats you see now aren’t necessarily the team which will be making a run to the playoffs.