We knew going into this season that a fast start would be essential for the Patriots to maintain their playoff hopes. Had they faltered like Miami did, losing 2 of 3 division games, it would be a long, hard road to get into the tournament.
I doubt there are many of us that wouldn't have taken a 3-1 record if offered it before the season started. It hasn't always been pretty, but as Bill Parcells said "you are what you are" and the Patriots are still in the division race.
The next four games against the Baltimore Ravens, San Diego Chargers, Minnesota Vikings and Cleveland Browns are a daunting task. That's three 2009 playoff teams, and a Browns team that are no longer pushovers.
Analysis of a tough 2010 quarter number two after the jump...
It's often a good way to analyze the NFL season by breaking it down into four-game quarters. Of course if we go to 18 games a wrench will really be thrown into this way of thinking (another reason why I hate the 18 game season).
The first quarter is all about surviving, especially when you have a young defense like the Patriots do. Even 2-2 is acceptable, but ideally 3-1 or 4-0 really puts your team in solid position.
The second quarter is about improving, identifying your strengths and playing toward them.
Now we enter the second quarter and suddenly our offense looks vastly different than it did for the opener when Randy Moss and Kevin Faulk were still go-to weapons. Our defense has been exactly what we thought it would be, young and inconsistent.
The Big Picture
Offensively, the Patriots have returned to a more balanced attack, getting away from the spread offense and featuring close to 50/50 balance of run and pass. While the loss of Randy Moss will force the offense to adjust for the second time in three weeks, most respected football analysts think they should be just fine.
Defensively, they've shown flashes of solid play but have also given up a lot of yards and points. Questions still remain about the pass rush generating enough consistent pressure. Schematically they've stuck to their base 34 defense and a variety of nickel and dime packages. For the most part the defensive schemes have been kept simple in an effort to let the youngsters focus on technique and not get overwhelmed with disguise.
Special Teams have been special, with two returned kickoffs by Brandon Tate and two blocks by Patrick Chung. Everyone always sighs when the Patriots draft special teams demons but now we're seeing just how much of an impact they can have.
Baltimore Ravens Return to the Site of Their Patriots Beat Down
It's a good thing that Patriots have the bye week to prepare for the Ravens, who are viewed by many as the best team in the NFL. While Ray Rice has been dinged up their passing offense has developed since last year with the acquisition of Anquan Boldin.
This will be a great test for the Pats, especially for their young secondary. Baltimore features a trio of veteran receivers who know how to set up and take advantage of inexperienced defensive backs. Win or lose this will tell us a lot about where the Patriots rank in the NFL right now. While it's far from a must-win game, it is definitely a chance for New England to send a message that they should be in the conversation of elite teams, even without Randy Moss.
Brady Returns to San Diego For the First Time Since the 2006 AFCDG
Attending the 2006 AFCDG against the Chargers is still my all time best fan experience. It's hard to top upsetting a Super Bowl favorite on their home turf, especially when it's Ladainian Tomlinson, Shawne Merriman and Philip Rivers. I also attended the 2008 regular season game featuring Matt Cassel at QB and that one wasn't quite as much fun. I still can't get "we got more bounce in california" out of my head.
The Chargers of 2010 are hard to get a read on. Under Norv Turner they always seem to start slow before picking up steam and becoming a Super Bowl favorite before getting upset in their first playoff game.
Facing the Chargers in San Diego is never an easy task, and will be an excellent opportunity for the Patriots to continue distancing themselves from the road woes of 2009. The Pats physical corners match up better with the big Chargers receivers this time, and Gary Guyton should give Antonio Gates a tough time.
No matter how the Chargers look over the next couple weeks you have to expect they will be ready to play their best football against the Patriots.
Will Moss Return to Haunt the Patriots on Halloween?
What a surreal game this will be, with so many storylines. How will the Pats defend a player they know so well in Moss? Can the defensive line stop Adrian Peterson? Will Brett Favre still be dealing with the Jenn Sterger stuff?
Last time the Patriots faced the Vikings in 2006 they went with the spread offense and avoided the vaunted Williams boys all together. While the Pats have been more balanced in 2009 this is one game where we might see a lot more four receiver sets. Matt Light vs. Jared Allen is a match made in red neck heaven.
Let's Go Visit Fredo and the Browns
If there was one game this quarter that is a must win it will be when the Patriots visit the Browns. The Browns don't have a great quarterback or receivers and at the halfway point of the season, it will be time for the young Patriots secondary to stop making below average offenses look like juggernauts.
If the Pats are shredded by Jake Delhomme like they were by Ryan Fitzpatrick it could be a bad omen for the rest of the season. Especially with a third quarter of Pittsburgh, Indy, Detroit and the Jets. They aren't many games against inferior opponents in 2010, the Pats must win the few they have.
Second Quarter Will Be The Hardest Test
The second quarter of the 2010 season will be a defining four games for the Patriots. They'll face three top-ten teams, luckily two of which will be in Foxboro. But by November 8th we'll have a pretty good idea of who this Patriots team is. Are they in the Super Bowl contenders conversation? Or are they a team that still needs to add more talent via the 2011 draft?
Even a 2-2 record would keep the Pats afloat in the race for the AFC East. The Jets and Dolphins will both face similar tough schedules and are sure to lose a game or two themselves.