Eleven weeks of the season are in the rear-view mirror. Six weeks of regular season remain. They're still more than a month away, but the NFL playoffs are beginning to work themselves into everyday conversation.
And the New England Patriots are right in the middle of that discussion.
The finish line for the regular season isn't far away, and the Patriots are rounding themselves into a team that will be a major threat in the postseason. The offense is clicking, the defense is improving, the play-calling is progressing and the focus is sharpening.
Surely, the Patriots are aiming to get at least as far as they got last year. That means reaching the Super Bowl—maybe even winning it.
Though its flaws have been discussed and explored often, New England has just as much right to be in the Super Bowl discussion as any team in the league. The Patriots may not be the favorite, but they're close.
To get to that point, they'll have to keep improving in a few areas. Some of those are fully within their control. Some will just rely on better luck down the stretch.
We'll start with the obvious.
It's hard to imagine a team being in the Super Bowl discussion with the sort of pass defense the Patriots have, but nevertheless, that is the case. New England leads the division despite being third in the NFL in most passing yards allowed and tied for last in touchdown passes given up.
New England already tried chasing a Lombardi Trophy with a poor pass defense and paid the price, as the Patriots couldn't make a stand against Eli Manning last year in Indianapolis when a stop would have meant a championship.
Recent history has shown that powerful offenses don't get to run roughshod in the postseason, but this year, New England appears poised to make crucial progress in the secondary. The acquisition of Aqib Talib gives the Patriots a bona fide starting cornerback, Alfonzo Dennard has developed into an up-and-comer with playmaking instincts and Devin McCourty has taken to his new safety assignments.
The Patriots don't need to find an equivalent to Darrelle Revis and Ed Reed back there. They don't need to be the Chicago Bears or San Francisco 49ers. But they need to be much, much better than they were earlier in the season.
They've improved recently, and that needs to continue.
It's hard to complain about the highest-scoring offense in the league, but the Patriots' superb attack does have one glaring weakness.
In its recent crunch-time tests, the Patriots offense, which rolls through the first three quarters, has stalled. The offense couldn't close what became losses to the Baltimore Ravens and the Seattle Seahawks, couldn't finish off the New York Jets (until New York actually took the lead and forced New England to get desperate) and couldn't keep the Buffalo Bills from getting a final crack at a walk-off win two games ago.
In the playoffs, the ability to put up points isn't as important as the ability to come through on crucial, game-deciding drives. The gap between an explosive offense and a solid one shrinks, which means games get decided in later moments.
The Patriots exploited this during their championship runs. The offense couldn't score at the rate this one can, but it was excellent at making the handful of plays that needed to be made, often in the fourth quarter, to stave off an opponent's comeback attempt.
In the playoffs, games come down to whether one seven-yard out is made, or whether one 3rd-and-3 is converted or whether one drive goes the extra 15 yards that becomes the difference between a punt and a field goal.
The Patriots have to get better at making those plays, especially when the consequence of failing to do so is sending that pass defense back on the field.
Josh McDaniels' return to the Patriots got off to a slow start, but since then, the chemistry's improved, and the times have gotten easier.
McDaniels has simplified the calls in recent weeks, and it's no coincidence that the offense is looking better than at any point this year. Gone are the reverses and sweeps on 3rd-and-short and the halfback throwbacks to Tom Brady on 2nd-and-long.
The offense has looked more like what we've come to expect from the Patriots, and McDaniels has to keep it that way. He's a talented offensive mind whose skills have resulted in fielding a potent attack, but in tight situations, the solution isn't to overthink. The solution is to give the ball to Brady, with the multiple weapons at his disposal, and let the best quarterback in the game move the ball.
McDaniels is moving in that direction, the last few weeks would indicate. Hopefully it continues.
At times this season, the Patriots run game has looked unstoppable.
Stevan Ridley's looked like Adrian Peterson, Danny Woodhead's looked like Darren Sproles and Tom Brady's quarterback position has looked like the easiest job in football.
And at other times, the ground attack has been an attack in name only. Ridley's struggled to find room, the offensive line hasn't gotten a push and Brady and the passing game have had to carry the load—which has made an impact on the scoreboard.
There have been three instances this season in which the Patriots were held under 100 yards rushing. Each time—against Arizona, at Baltimore and at Seattle—resulted in a loss.
There have also been times when the Patriots have run as if they weren't facing a defensive line to begin with. They churned up 247 yards against the Bills in Buffalo and 251 the next week against Denver, and they also ran for 152 yards against the Rams in London, an impressive number considering the ease with which Brady was passing against them.
As the lead running back in the rotation, Ridley's numbers have shown the same up-and-down trend. He's been excellent overall, as he's on pace for 1,347 yards on a team that relies heavily on the pass. But he's had his struggles as well, which manifested themselves again last week when he ran for only 28 yards on 13 carries in a game in which his team scored 59 points.
The stats show that when the running game works, the Patriots become very tough to beat. If the ground game thrives in January, New England could go far.
The Patriots have to be far luckier medically going forward than they've been to this point.
Aaron Hernandez, Chandler Jones, Patrick Chung, Wes Welker, Logan Mankins and Rob Gronkowski form a list of significant contributors for New England. They've also battled or are battling the injury bug, with Hernandez's struggles lasting almost the entire season.
Gronkowski's broken forearm is a significant setback that could cost the Patriots their chances at a bye, but he's not the only player whose injury caused a major predicament. Hernandez's high ankle sprain forced the Patriots to reconstruct their offense on the fly, while injuries to Chung and Steve Gregory created a black hole at the safety position that cost the team a win against the Seahawks.
The Patriots really haven't seen their pass offense at full health since Week 1, and it's been weeks since their defense was at full strength. Injuries happen, but if this team is going to go deep, it'll have to have its best players on the field for the biggest games of the year.