The New England Patriots’ bye week is over, and the team will return to work later today preparing for the second half of the season. The team’s fortunes in regards to the postseason will be decided over the upcoming weeks and in order to get you up to speed on what lies ahead, here is a quick second-half preview:
The first half of the a season
While suffering their first defeat in Week 9, the Patriots looked like one of the best if not the best team in football for most of the first half of the season. The offense, while still looking for its identity, was among the most productive in the league while the defense played some lights-out football and led the team in numerous statistical categories. Add it all up, and you get the following numbers for the team at this point of the season:
Record: 8-1 (1st place AFC East)
Offense: 2nd (30.0 points/game)
Defense: 1st (10.9 points/game)
With the exception of last week’s game in Baltimore — a 37-20 defeat — the Patriots cruised through the early portions of the season and put themselves in a very good position to earn not just their eleventh straight division title, but also a first-round playoff bye and potentially even the number one overall seed in the conference.
The upcoming opponents
After playing only three teams over the first nine weeks that currently have a winning record — the 7-2 Baltimore Ravens (L), the 6-3 Buffalo Bills (W) and the 5-4 Pittsburgh Steelers (W) — the Patriots will face some tough opposition coming out of the bye. No less than four of the Patriots’ next seven opponents are currently .500 or better:
Week 11: at Philadelphia Eagles (5-4)
Week 12: vs Dallas Cowboys (5-4)
Week 13: at Houston Texans (6-3)
Week 14: vs Kansas City Chiefs (6-4)
Week 15: at Cincinnati Bengals (0-9)
Week 16: vs Buffalo Bills (6-3)
Week 17: vs Miami Dolphins (2-7)
The games against Houston, Kansas City and Buffalo could have major implications not just on the Patriots’ season but the AFC’s postseason picture as a whole: New England winning at least two of the games should essentially secure a first-round playoff bye for the reigning world champions. On the other hand, however, defeats — especially against the Texans or Chiefs — could force the Patriots into a difficult race for a top-two seed in the conference.
While New England played some impressive football before the bye week, the team still has some areas that need to be improved over the upcoming games. Last week, we identified the following five of them:
Run defense: Stopping the run has been a problem for the Patriots’ otherwise dominant defense going all the way back to Week 4’s game against the Bills. The contest against the Ravens last week, showed that the team has considerable work to do both when it comes to performing the fundamentals and to scheming against run-heavy teams like Baltimore.
Red zone offense: After scoring touchdowns on just two of their four red zone trips against the Ravens, the Patriots ranked only 23rd in the league with a 48.9% success rate inside the opponents’ 20-yard line. Needless to say that offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels will need to find ways to have his unit finish drives in the end zone as opposed to kicking field goals.
Team health: Getting some time off will help the players who are still recovering from injuries, even if they are classified as minor. It will also help two men — left tackle Isaiah Wynn and first-round rookie receiver N’Keal Harry — take another step towards returning to the field and helping the offense after its up-and-down performance over the first half of the season.
Offensive line: Speaking of Isaiah Wynn, his return is expected to be an enormous boost for an offensive line that has yet to properly gel and work as a unit on a consistent down-to-down basis. The lack of consistency is due to individual performance and personnel turnover, and hurt New England in both the running and the passing game.
Quarterback-receiver chemistry: The Patriots have seen considerable turnover at both wide receiver and tight end this season, and improved chemistry between Tom Brady and his weapons should help the unit moving forward — especially if the O-line continues to struggle.
The big storylines
Will the Patriots defend the number one seed? As noted above, New England is heading into the most difficult stretch of its season — one that will define the team’s playoff outlook. The reigning world champions are still a game ahead of the Ravens for the moment, but any slip-up could lead to a change atop the conference and potentially even hurt the team’s chances at earning a first-round bye.
How will Isaiah Wynn and N’Keal Harry look? The Patriots invested their two return designations off injured reserve to get Wynn and Harry back, and the duo is expected to play a considerable role moving forward — especially Wynn: he has looked good during the early portions of the season, and would undoubtably be an upgrade over replacement Marshall Newhouse. Harry, meanwhile, will likely serve as a rotational option early on but still give Tom Brady a big perimeter target.
Is no-huddle the Patriots’ offensive identity? New England struggled against the Ravens, but there were nevertheless some encouraging developments on the offensive side of the ball: the team used an up-tempo approach from the second quarter on, and was able to challenge Baltimore’s defense while trying to come back from a 17-point deficit. The Patriots ultimately came up short, but the offensive battle plan could provide a blueprint moving forward.
Will New England’s run defense improve? The NFL is a copycat league, and other teams will try to replicate the Ravens’ approach against the Patriots defense. While not all teams have a duo like Lamar Jackson and Mark Ingram in the backfield, New England needs to self-scout and find a way to limit the mistakes against the ground game — or else the playoff run could be a short one.
Will Rob Gronkowski return for the playoffs? The future Hall of Famer has until November 30 to announce whether or not he will return this season, but the expectation is that he will remain retired. Don’t count on him having a change of heart.