Mapping out New England Patriots' Path to NFL Playoffs, Super Bowl
Coming off a heart-rendering loss to the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLVI, Bill Belichick's team entered the 2012 season on a mission to return to the Super Dome where the dynasty began and finally hoist that lingering fourth Lombardi Trophy.
However, after a shaky start, the 3-3 Patriots have some work to do.
Let's take a look at what New England needs to do to get to the playoffs and find themselves back in America's biggest game.
Stay Balanced on Offense
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With a newly found running game and Tom Brady still leading the pack, the Patriots looked like the most balanced offensive attack in football heading into Week 6.
Then they threw the ball 58 times against Seattle.
If not for some missed opportunities in the red zone, this strategy probably would have worked, but the fact remains: The Patriots are a better team when they can run the ball.
As Field Yates of ESPNBoston points out, the Patriots are 3-0 when at least half of their offensive plays are rushes and 0-3 when attempting more passes than rushes.
Stevan Ridley, Brandon Bolden and Danny Woodhead have been getting it done on the ground when given the opportunity. If the Pats want to make it to the big show, they have to keep feeding these fellas the football.
Shake Things Up in the Secondary
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The Patriots are currently ranked 28th in pass defense.
While that is a slight improvement from last year's 31st ranking, it's just not good enough for a Super Bowl contender.
Yes, the Patriots made it to the Super Bowl with a bad pass defense last year, but the defensive backs were unable to contain the Giants' passing attack and seal the win in the final minutes.
It's time for the Patriots to shake things up back there and they could start by keeping rookie Alfonzo Dennard at right cornerback in place of a struggling Kyle Arrington. Despite missing substantial time during training camp, the former Big Ten Defensive Back of the Year has looked good in limited action.
But the Patriots can't stop there.
Perhaps they should try former second-round choice Ras-I Dowling at safety or test him out at left cornerback and let Devin McCourty man the free safety spot.
Look, Dennard and Dowling might not be the most experienced guys in the league, but they have talent. It's time to put that talent to work and start building a Super Bowl-caliber secondary.
Develop a Mean Streak on Defense
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Between Brandon Spikes destroying running backs (three forced fumbles, five tackles for loss), Jerod Mayo tackling anyone that touches the football (leads the NFL with 61 tackles), Vince Wilfork being a rock in the middle and the emergence of Chandler Jones as a quarterback terror (five sacks), the Patriots have the makings of a pretty mean defense.
They just need more of it.
Back in the early 2000s, guys like Willie McGinest, Ty Law and Rodney Harrison were some of the meanest and most feared dudes in the league, and it helped the Pats win multiple titles.
Like those before them, the 2012 Patriots need to embrace a "mean" mentality on defense and run with it all the way through the playoffs.
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The Patriots have lost three games by a combined four points.
They were in position to put each of these games away in the fourth quarter but couldn't put together the plays when it counted the most, on offense, defense and special teams.
Had the coaching staff called a few more favorable plays and had the players executed at a higher level when the win was within reach, we might be looking at a 6-0 team rather than a 3-3 team.
Teams that win the tough games and play their best when the game is on the line are the teams that go deep into the playoffs.
The Pats need to close better if they want to be one of those teams.
Beat the Houston Texans and the San Francisco 49ers
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The Patriots have had their struggles early this season, but it doesn't get any easier going forward, especially with heavyweights like the Houston Texans (5-1) and the San Francisco 49ers (4-2) left on the schedule.
These teams flex two of the most daunting defenses in the league and are sure to bring their "A" game when they come to town this December.
The Texans and the 49ers have both been labeled by many as the best team in the AFC and the NFC, respectively. If the Patriots can put their best foot forward and defeat two of the league's top dogs, that could provide some serious momentum heading into the playoffs.
If this team really wants to find itself in New Orleans this February, they need to take these guys down.