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New England Patriots Progress Report: Where Do Things Stand Headed into Week 6?

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New England Patriots Progress Report: Where Do Things Stand Headed into Week 6?
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Turmoil fell swiftly on the New England Patriots after starting the season 1-2, but with two quick wins, the Patriots are right back on track, and the memory of their early-season struggles is fading further and further into the recesses of our minds.

This team still has been inconsistent in some areas, but the one constant through five games has been the performance of Tom Brady.

Here's a progress report for the Patriots' season to date.

 

The Good

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This sub-header should just read "The Offense." Every facet, save some spotty pass-protection, is firing on all cylinders early. The Patriots have overcome injuries to tight end Aaron Hernandez, wide receiver Julian Edelman and guard Logan Mankins to establish themselves as the league's No. 1 offense headed into Week 6. 

Tom Brady's numbers aren't devastating, but unlike recent years, the Patriots haven't needed that level of production. The running game has suddenly emerged as a valuable weapon. The Patriots have rushed for 200 yards in back-to-back games for the first time since 1978, and their 4.3 YPA rushing average ranks ninth in the league.

They have scored 10 rushing touchdowns, tops in the NFL through five games.

Who else has emerged as a valuable weapon? Wes Welker.

Yep, where it looked like he might be phased out of the offense early in the season, injuries have opened the door for him to reestablish himself. How long that lasts is another question, but Welker's status as the league's third-leading receiver in catches and sixth-leading receiver in yards has been beyond critical to the team's continued success in the face of those injuries.

 

The Bad

Running back Stevan Ridley has been the answer to the Patriots' lack of an explosive running game, and the young back had largely put the fumble problems of last season behind him, until an untimely fumble gave the Broncos a chance to draw within one possession.

There is no reason not to continue to give him the ball—he is the first Patriots running back to average more than 4.6 yards per carry on more than 100 carries since Sammy Morris in 2008—but with the Patriots, it's hard to tell how much that will affect his playing time going forward.

There are still problems in coverage, namely in giving up big plays. The safeties have been caught out of position at times, and the Patriots have given up 27 pass plays of more than 20 yards, the most in the NFL.

After a great week from cornerback Devin McCourty against Stevie Johnson, and what has been a great start to the season, the Patriots got a bit more Hyde than Jekyll from their corner against the Broncos. He gave up four completions on five targets, including a touchdown catch by Demaryius Thomas.

The pass rush looked mighty impressive against the Titans in the opener, but it has been inconsistent since then. Chandler Jones has continued to play well, but the interior push remains an issue. In fact, ProFootballFocus.com has given nose tackle Vince Wilfork a negative rating in each of the first five games of the season, and he is currently the Patriots' lowest-rated defender. 

He has made two heads-up plays to scoop up timely fumbles, but beyond that, his presence has not been felt.

One other area this team has struggled is in kickoff returns. The Patriots' average kickoff return has gone just 20 yards, the fourth-lowest average in the league. Their offense has more than made up for it by moving the ball the length of the field for touchdowns, but they'd probably like to get more return out of that facet of the game to give their offense a hand and help in the battle for field position.

 

Glass Half-Full

It looked like the AFC East would be highly competitive this season, but the Patriots seem to have found their stride after a slow start to the season while the rest of the division has struggled to close (Dolphins), been exposed against any team that's not been a doormat (Bills) or been hit with the injury bug (Jets).

Three of the team's first four games were on the road, and two of their next three are road games as well, which will leave just three road games in the final eight weeks of the regular season.

The defense is still incredibly young, and the flashes of brilliance have been enough to help them win games. Those flashes could become more sustained as the year goes on and the players get comfortable in the scheme and working with each other.

To think that the top-rated offense could actually get better when they get healthy should be a scary notion for the rest of the NFL, especially the Patriots' future opponents.

 

Glass Half-Empty

A win over the Denver Broncos is impressive—even if the game was a lot closer than it really needed to be—but the Patriots have shown weaknesses already, just five weeks into the season.

Even if they're finding a way to win, they struggle with the better teams in the league. 

They also laid an egg in the home opener against the Cardinals, so to say that any win is assured would involve a selective memory.

They've done enough when needed on defense, but there's no reason to think the defense will ever find the consistency they've lacked for years. 

Unless they start playing 60 minutes of team football, they'll be privy to falling behind (Bills), letting teams hang around (Cardinals, Ravens) and allowing them to storm back from late deficits (Ravens, Broncos).

 

Outlook

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The Patriots have about matched our expectations to this point, with an offense that looks unstoppable and a defense that has struggled but has done enough to get the job done when needed.

The upcoming three-game stretch has been a focal point from my perspective since the schedule was released, and not because it looks particularly easy.

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The Patriots begin a trek that will take them halfway across the Earth in the span of under three weeks. It starts in Seattle against the Seahawks, continues in Foxboro against the New York Jets and concludes at Wembley Stadium in London against the St. Louis Rams.

Hope the Patriots' body clocks are ready to get thrown for a loop.

Most reasonable people probably had the Patriots at 4-1 at this point, and 3-2 isn't a whole lot worse than that, but with such a tough stretch ahead, it's important for the Patriots to keep their win streak alive to avoid allowing one of the other AFC East teams to climb back into the race.

 

Erik Frenz is the AFC East lead blogger for Bleacher Report. Be sure to follow Erik on Twitter and "like" the AFC East blog on Facebook to keep up with all the updates. Unless specified otherwise, all quotes are obtained firsthand.

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