Seven wins at the bye. Bill Belichick will take it.
All things considered, the Patriots should be tickled pink that they are 7-2, given all they have had to go through over the summer and going into the fall. Players leaving, players with legal issues, players getting injured, yet here are the Patriots at the bye week in first place at 7-2. Tom Brady looked at times like he was going to completely lose it, yet here he is as always, right at the forefront of the AFC with only a handful of teams he should truly worry about.
The Patriots have evolved slowly into what they are now. They are not the offensive juggernaut of 2007, though Sunday's game against Pittsburgh looked a lot like it. They are not the defensive stalwarts they were during the three Super Bowl title seasons, with lockdown corners and perfect players. They are simply something else, and exactly what that something else is will be revealed more and more as the season grinds on into November and December.
The timeworn dogma of Bill Parcells says that "you are what your record says you are". The Patriots, in actuality, could very well be 9-0 if not for a lousy effort against a beatable team and an untimely application of some exotic new penalty. But the Patriots are 7-2, with only Denver and Kansas City as serious conference co-contenders. Given how Brady has had to adapt despite the losses of Wes Welker, Danny Woodhead and Aaron Hernandez, and all the injuries the defense has had to deal with, the fact that the Patriots are 7-2 is perhaps the biggest positive of the 2013 season thus far.
The Patriots don't just plan on winning the division. Players, management and fans expect at least a conference title run every year. If they are to continue their yearly playoff run in January, here are five keys to bringing that about.
Don't worry about how you get the message, just get the message
Brady took some heat from some sectors of the media for his candor earlier in the season when he was unable to get on the same page as his rookie receivers. He was seen on the sideline throwing some very noticeable and demonstrative conniption fits. And these were real whoppers. At times Brady looked like he was going to break a blood vessel in his head.
The prevailing sentiment was something like "he should be nicer to these rookies so that they don't lose their confidence". Brady should be more measured in his criticism of his young receivers. It looks so much better from a leadership standpoint if Brady could just walk up to the player, pat him on the back and say something like "It's okay, we'll get 'em next time!"
You know what? This is the NFL.
If Brady chews you out, you should do one of two things. Listen to what he says and get better. Or leave and try and hook on with another team.
Brady has earned the right to act and react any way he wants. Brady will be a first ballot Hall of Famer someday. He has three Super Bowl rings and two Super Bowl MVPs. He knows how to win, and he knows how to win in the clutch.
You the rookie receiver need to grow up, take what he gives you, and continue to improve. If he yells at you, take it for what it's worth and get back to work. Shut up until you've earned the right to speak up. Until then, never mind if he yells at you. Suck it up and do what he tells you.
Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins will be very good receivers someday. And if they have any good sense and good personal character, they will thank Brady someday for chewing them out when they clearly deserved it.
When Vereen comes back, take the pressure off Brady
Of the many injuries the Patriots have sustained, one of the most overlooked is the loss of Shane Vereen. The Patriots are deep at running back with Stevan Ridley, LeGarrette Blount and Brandon Bolden. But none of them has the skill set that Vereen has, especially at catching the football.
If Vereen can stay healthy, he gives the Patriots a weapon they used to have in Kevin Faulk and Woodhead. If Brady can use Vereen in screen packages, it can open up lots of nice things over the middle if the defense has to respect the outside. And Vereen can run the ball also, which will take a lot of pressure off Ridley.
Blount and Bolden are basically luxury items. They are nice to have for power yardage, and now and then they can break off long runs. Ridley is your workhorse if he can get rid of his fumble yips (Faulk used to have them also). But Vereen can make a difference, especially against tough December and January defenses.
Resist the temptation to overwork Gronkowski
He's back. You just want to throw to him about 15-20 times a game. It's an addiction.
But Rob Gronkowski cannot be the focal point of the offense. Brady has, or will soon have, more weapons at his disposal than he had earlier on in the season. He has options.
And he has his binky tight end back.
Gronkowski has shown that he is not indestructible. It took forever to get him back on the field. It looked like there was a huge polarization developing on the Patriots with Gronkowski, a chasm between the team and Gronkowski's family and confidantes. The family may have been the sage ones here. Don't put him back on the field until he is ready to go beyond a shadow of a doubt.
It would be wonderful if Gronkowski were not put in a position for people to speculate on his health or overusage. Use Gronk, yes. But temper that usage. And for goodness sakes, don't transfer that overusage to Danny Amendola. Spread the ball around, and get back to the days when seven or eight different receivers caught at least one pass.
Then, when that one tough January catch has to be made, Gronk will be there to make it.
Sopoaga has to make believe he is Wilfork
No problem. If Brady goes down, just tell Ryan Mallett he has to make believe he is Brady. That's how it works, right?
Isaac Sopoaga was picked up last week from the Eagles as a run stopping nose tackle. In his first game as a Patriot, the Steelers had 108 yards rushing as a team, and averaged 5.4 yards per carry. That sort of thing works great if your offense scores 55 points. But on average nights, those numbers need to go down. Like under four yards per carry, and ideally, under three.
The loss of Vince Wilfork has exposed the Patriots as a poor run stopping defense. They were 31st in the league against the run going into Sunday's game against Pittsburgh. Sopoaga needs to step up and plug up the middle, if not at Wilfork's level, at least to the point where teams cannot easily run between the tackles and chew up yardage and clock. Keep in mind also that Jerod Mayo is also missing from this defense, which is magnifying the work of Donte Hightower.
Pay attention to the opponent's yards per carry average. Under four? Good. Under three? January great.
Here's to the health of Aqib Talib
Talib is a funny guy. To listen to him talk, he sounds like Boomhauer from the TV cartoon King of the Hill.
But there is nothing funny about how Talib plays cornerback. And as demonstrated in last year's AFC Championship Game, there is also nothing funny about when he is not in there.
Much was made about Talib being an anti-boy scout when he arrived at Foxborough last year. Now, he's more like the Amendola of the defense rather than being the next Pacman Jones. Talib has been either extremely good or extremely hurt during his Patriot tenure.
Talib is not a lockdown cornerback in the mold of Ty Law, but he is very close. He is perhaps the key to the Patriots making it to the Super Bowl. Along the way to the Big Show, some quarterback will expose Kyle Arrington (who plays when Talib is hurt), and it will likely be the difference in the game. That's pretty much how Baltimore beat the Patriots back in January. Talib could cover Anquan Boldin, but Arrington could not.