Despite the New England Patriots' dominating 49-19 win over the New York Jets last night, they remain in a tight playoff race where the difference between a bye and the fourth seed could be just a single loss.
As Bill Belichick preaches, "the season really starts after Thanksgiving," so now is the time when the real football begins. Let's take a look at some of the Patriots players who will be most vital to their playoff push.
The Patriots haven't had a reliable ground game element in the playoffs since Corey Dillon in 2004.
You don't need to look any further than their AFC Divisional matchup in 2004 to see the impact a dominant running game can have, especially when your secondary is banged up and you need to control time of possession.
As the elements come into play in the winter months, the Patriots will need Stevan Ridley to elevate his game. Last season, his rookie year, he got a case of "fumblitis" at the end of the year and didn't see another carry after fumbling in the AFC Divisional round against the Broncos.
If you look at the Super Bowl losses to the Giants, the biggest problem was that the Patriots running game was not feared. New York's defensive line was able to pin their ears back and get after Tom Brady.
But this year Ridley has shown a playmaking element that the Patriots haven't had in a while, and if he is able to break some runs in December and January the Pats could be headed back to the Super Bowl.
Some thought Cunningham was entering a "make or break" year at the start of 2012. In his new role as an interior sub-rusher as well as fill-in defensive end, he's having his best year as a pro.
For all the talk of how bad the Patriots secondary has been this year down the stretch, the only thing that really matters is the pass rush. If the pass rush can elevate behind Cunningham, Chandler Jones, Rob Ninkovich, and perhaps even Trevor Scott, the Patriots will have a chance to make a run at the Super Bowl.
The biggest key to the pass rush as I see it is Cunningham, as he is the only Patriots defensive lineman capable of generating any kind of interior pass rush. The interior rush is a huge element against quick passing teams, and it's often the quick passes that most teams use to attack the Patriots.
With Rob Gronkowski out for the next month the pressure will be on Aaron Hernandez to not only stay healthy, but to pick up the slack in the red zone where Gronk was such a big target. Despite only picking up two catches against the Jets, Hernandez played 57 of 68 snaps and looks like he is close to being fully recovered from the sprained ankle that has haunted him for most of the season.
Coming out of training camp, most reports were that Hernandez was set to be the single biggest weapon in this offense. Hernandez has a unique ability to make defenders miss in space, and some of that has been missing since he returned from injury.
It will be vital for Hernandez to get his mojo back as the Patriots come down the home stretch to not only make up for the loss of Gronk, but also bring back a significant dimension to the Patriots offense.
Ninkovich has already been one of the most crucial defenders for the Patriots this season. It began with his transition to more of a defensive end role, and now Ninkovich is one of the most versatile players on the Patriots roster.
When you look at the games this year that the Patriots have won or lost it's a good bet that the performance of the defense correlates exactly to the kind of game that Rob Ninkovich played.
When Ninkovich is on, there is no better defender on the Patriots. He's already forced five fumbles this season, tying him with Mike Vrabel for the Patriots' all-time record in one season. Ninkovich's hallmark has been the big, game sealing plays, most notably against the Broncos, Jets and Colts this season. Ninkovich added another recovered fumble against the Jets on Thanksgiving.
Ninkovich seems to play best on the biggest stages but he was fairly quiet in the 2011 playoff run. If Ninkovich's play continues to elevate, the impact on the rest of the defense will be palpable.
Patrick Chung returned to action against the Jets and was inserted into the starting slot cornerback role, a place he has struggled in the past. Chung recorded two tackles, including one for a loss.
There's no question that time is running out for Chung. He's had another injury-plagued year, and struggled even when he was healthy.
For a player in a contract year, this cannot be the kind of season Chung had hoped for. Still, the Patriots need Chung because neither Devin McCourty nor Steve Gregory are ideal for the strong safety position in the Patriots scheme. Chung has an aggressiveness to his game that is always welcome and he also is universally praised for his leadership.
Now that Chung is back in the lineup he cannot leave anything on the sideline or in the locker room. The team needs him and we know Chung wants it. He's got two months to turn in the best performances of his professional career. If he does that, a Super Bowl and a new lucrative contract from the Patriots just might be possible.
Don't look now, but the Patriots rookie Alfonzo Dennard has elevated himself into the starting lineup after falling all the way to the seventh round of the draft.
Dennard might not have elite size but he plays with the kind of tenacity the Patriots desire from their corners. And, as we saw against the Colts and Jets, he's starting to make plays on the ball—a pick six from Andrew Luck and a forced fumble on Thanksgiving.
There's no question that cornerback has been a trouble spot for the Patriots, and with Aqib Talib now in the mix, one side of the equation should be solved. But if Dennard continues to improve like he has in recent weeks, the Patriots might really see their pass defense start to blossom.
If there ever was a key player going down the stretch to the playoffs it's Tom Brady. With a flawless performance against the Jets, Brady once again showed why he's one of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play the game.
Despite the Patriots' success in 2011, Brady wasn't exactly dominant in the AFC Championship nor the Super Bowl and his sub-par playoff performances in other recent seasons have been well documented.
But right now it looks like Brady is starting to hit his stride, despite playing without Rob Gronkowski and with a hobbled Aaron Hernandez and Wes Welker.
Brady knows he only has so many Super Bowl runs left, and if he's able to elevate his play to the next level down the stretch, a playoff bye could very well be in reach.