Coach Bill Belichick can point to several areas of his team that need improvement.
It’s not unreasonable to call critics of the New England Patriots’ 2012 season unreasonable. A 5-3 record, after all, equates to a .625 winning percentage—good for a 101-win season in Major League Baseball. But football—and the 21st century Patriots franchise in particular—is a different animal, held to a much higher standard.
In order to fulfill their Super Bowl-or-bust expectations, the Pats have some serious work to do during their Week 9 bye.
It's not like we've played great football over these last eight weeks. There is a lot of improvement we need to make. There is a lot of things we can do better. We have to get everybody moving forward and make a big push here in the second half because this is where the best teams really start to show themselves.
The Patriots aspire to count themselves among the top tier of Super Bowl contenders, and they aren’t there yet. Here are a few key adjustments the Pats can make this week if they hope to bring a fourth Lombardi Trophy to New England.
The Pats will need more Ridley in the coming weeks.
It's more than a novelty at this point. The 2012 Patriots must rely on the run game to ease Brady's burden.
The play calls under new OC Josh McDaniels have been far more balanced—the Pats are ninth in the league in rushing play percentage, way up from last year, when they ranked 19th.
They've run the ball on 45 percent of their snaps this year, trusting backs Stevan Ridley and Danny Woodhead in particular to shoulder the load (stats per TeamRankings.com).
The running game has opened up play-action for the Pats (like this 28-yard TD strike to Rob Gronkowski in Week 4) and improved their time of possession from 27th in 2011 to ninth this year.
That helps them control the pace of games and move the ball without relying on Brady's 35 year-old arm.
Inexplicably, the Pats have ignored the run game recently. In their last 3 weeks, the Pats have run the ball less than 38 percent of the time. That's less than their average from last year, and good for seventh-least in the NFL during the three-week span.
It has affected their average time of possession, which was seventh in the NFL after Week 5 but has dipped to 14th over the last three weeks.
Don't think time of possession is important? Consider that last year, six of the top-10 ranked teams in TOP were playoff teams, with no team in the top-10 finishing below .500.
New England has a stable of talented backs, and if they recommit to their ground game, their offense will be better equipped to control tight ballgames.
Pats fans, meet your new top corner, Aqib Talib.
Newly-acquired CB Aqib Talib won't be allowed to enter an NFL facility until he has fulfilled his suspension for violating the NFL's drug policy, but that doesn't mean the Pats shouldn't start planning for the new arrival.
Their secondary needs a shakeup, anyway.
With Talib available for their Week 11 matchup against the Indianapolis Colts, the Pats may finally have a passable defensive backfield.
Opponents have been picking apart their Cover-2 scheme by attacking the Pats corners on the deep sidelines before the safeties can provide deep support.
Rather than modifying the base scheme mid-season, the Pats addressed this problem by picking up Talib, a big (6'1", 205 lbs), physical corner who excels in press-man coverage.
With Talib and rookie CB Alfonzo Dennard, the Pats have an effective pairing of cornerbacks who can play man coverage. Third-year corner Devin McCourty, who has been playing safety in recent weeks, was more of a zone coverage corner, which made pairings with man corners difficult to scheme.
Now McCourty can play a traditional centerfielder FS role, reading the QB's eyes and using his good instincts to break on the ball. When hard-hitting Pat Chung returns, he can play the SS position and provide strong run support.
For the first time in a while, there is reason to be optimistic about the Patriots' defensive backfield. New England's coaching staff must maximize the bye week to make sure they get a good return out of their new-found collection of talent.
It's tough to criticize Belichick, but he's made some weird calls this year.
This year, however, he seems to have lost his fastball in crucial situations.
At times, he has been too conservative. Belichick opted to take a knee and try a long field goal in the fourth quarter against the Arizona Cardinals rather than taking a few shots downfield to shorten the attempt.
Other times, he has been too aggressive. He let Brady take one too many shots at the end zone at the close of the first half against the Seattle Seahawks. The Pats failed to get any points in that situation, and ended up losing by one.
The Pats need to take risks, but those risks must be calculated. The Patriots simply can't afford to lose any more tight games down the stretch if they hope to position themselves for a deep playoff run.
McDaniels needs to learn when to cut back on high-risk plays.
The Pats' offensive play-calling, courtesy of McDaniels, has been questionable in critical instances.
Deception plays, bubble screens and sweeps are high-risk, high-reward playcalls. These kinds of plays have all worked for the Pats this season on the whole, but have failed New England in situations where they need to control the clock.
Take their third-quarter drive against the New York Jets in Week 7. The Pats were up 23-10 and began their march to put the game away.
The Pats opted for an off-tackle rushing play that gained one yard, followed by a bubble screen that got blown up for a loss of two. On third down, they tried a fake sweep to Wes Welker-turned-screen to Danny Woodhead that also got blown up behind the line.
All three plays in the series were horizontal, east-to-west calls. There were no shots at advancing the ball vertically. There were only forced attempts to getting players in space when the Pats didn't need big plays to win the game.
Naturally, after that drive, the Jets began their long march back into the game (even surging into the lead late in the fourth) before New England's D made a play in OT.
The best offense in the NFL shouldn't beat itself. The Pats need to reassess their relationship with risk in the latter half of the season, particularly with respect to play-calling.
Hopefully the bye gives Gronk's hip a chance to heal.
The bye couldn't come at a better time.
The Pats are as banged-up as any team in the league, and the week off offers their battered squad some much-needed time to lick its wounds.
Both starting TEs, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, are playing at less than 100 percent. Hernandez suffered a setback in recovering from an ankle sprain, sitting out the matchup against the Rams. He hasn't yet returned to practice.
Gronkowski has been playing—and playing well—recently, but he's still nursing a hip injury.
RB Brandon Bolden has missed the last two games with a knee injury, and his status for upcoming games is still in doubt.
Nickel corners Kyle Arrington and Marquice Cole are both coming off Week 8 injuries, and both corners look to be progressing well.
Finally, Wes Welker—who is dealing with an ankle injury he suffered in Week 8—returned to practice, but could use the week off to return to full health.
The Pats will need their stars healthy for the latter half of the season if they hope to secure a high seed.