For the first time in a long time, the New England Patriots may actually be flying under the radar.
With most of the focus on the Houston Texans (10-1) and Baltimore Ravens (9-2), the Patriots are not in the spotlight as they usually are, but they have nearly locked up the AFC East and are still in contention for one of the top two seeds in the conference.
With five games to go, the Patriots can't afford to lose again if they want to earn a first-round bye. That's especially important, given that one of those games is against the Texans.
But as we know with the Patriots, it's about one game at a time.
Here's a progress report of where things stand for the Patriots and where they could be headed from here.
Primary Talking Point
Will the balls keep bouncing New England's way when it matters in the playoffs?
That's been the main question for the Patriots this season.
They can't get stops on third down (44.85 percent ranks 30th) and struggle in the red zone (57.58 percent ranks 22nd), they can't get stops through the air (23rd in pass defense DVOA) and are just finally starting to mitigate the damage on big plays (55 pass plays of 20 yards or more is the most in the NFL).
But make no mistake: They do not rank second in the NFL in turnovers by mistake. As it has become increasingly clear that they are incapable of getting stops any other way besides creating turnovers, it has also become clear that they are indeed creating turnovers.
With 29 forced fumbles and 18 fumble recoveries, the Patriots are doing both at a higher rate than any other team in the NFL. Four Patriots defenders rank among the NFL's top 10 in forced fumbles: Brandon Spikes and Rob Ninkovich with five each, Chandler Jones and Jerod Mayo with three each.
Bleacher Report Patriots featured columnist Mike Dussault correctly points out that forced fumbles are less fluky than interceptions (which can be a result of teams passing a lot when trailing), but fumble recoveries are a matter of the ball bouncing your way after you knock it out. They didn't bounce New England's way in Super Bowl XLVI—in fact, three of them didn't bounce in that game.
At least the Patriots know what their strengths are on defense and as a team, and they are maximizing those strengths to improve their chance to win.
This list is a bit longer than might make Patriots fans comfortable.
Rob Gronkowski is still out and is still expected to miss at least another three weeks with a forearm injury.
Chandler Jones walked through the room. No boot or limp, for what it's worth. Declined interview request.— Jeff Howe (@jeffphowe) November 26, 2012
Jermaine Cunningham is not injured but will miss the next four games due to a violation of the league's performance-enhancing drug policy. That, along with Jones' injury, severely depletes the Patriots' already-limited repertoire of pass-rushers.
Vereen has two consecutive games with more than 10 carries, and a touchdown in both games. He also has at least one reception in five straight games. The Patriots are looking for ways to get him involved, and he has 15 or more snaps in five straight games (via ProFootballFocus.com).
With help from an 83-yard touchdown pass from Tom Brady, Vereen's 133 total yards against the Jets account for 43.8 percent of his production this season.
Fells filled in brilliantly for Gronkowski. The Patriots utilized him primarily as a run-blocker, and they weren't afraid to run behind him. In fact, ProFootballFocus.com graded Fells as the Patriots' best run-blocker on Thanksgiving, and that's including offensive linemen.
Tom Brady is quietly assembling an MVP season. He has exceeded a 125 passer rating in three of the past five games, during which time he has not thrown an interception (190 consecutive pass attempts).
He leads the league in interception percentage at 0.7 percent. If that number holds up, it would not only set a personal record, but also an NFL record for a quarterback starting every game in a 16-game season.
Hightower gave up receptions on four of five passes into his coverage, allowing 66 yards in the process. Yes, anything is a nitpick in a 30-point win, and Hightower had a sack despite rushing the passer just seven times, but the Patriots linebackers are not good in coverage, a weakness that has been apparent all season long.
The third-year defensive tackle saw his heaviest workload of the season, with 37 snaps on Thursday night, according to ProFootballFocus.com. He didn't get any pressure on quarterback Mark Sanchez despite 20 attempts to do so.
- The Patriots have gathered more than 100 rushing yards in five consecutive games, yet the running game is slipping in YPA. They average 4.3 YPA this season, but averaged four against the Bills and 3.9 against the Jets. Those are not great run defenses that have been able to contain the Patriots' rushing attack, at least by their standards. That being said, it's still effective for them—they rank first in the league in rushing first downs per game with 9.9, and they had 12 rushing first downs against the Jets on Thursday.
- Dante Scarnecchia gets a lot of love on the AFC East blog (here and here), and he deserves even more for the performance of this offensive line than he has in years past. For the past two years, he has watched the offensive line he built wilt away, replaced slowly by a new-look group. That group ranks second in the NFL in sack percentage, allowing Tom Brady to be brought down on just 3.4 percent of his drop-backs. Football Outsiders ranks the Patriots seventh in adjusted line yards and first in adjusted sack rate. All this despite some doom and gloom (even some from yours truly) about the state of the offensive line headed into 2012.
- Stevan Ridley: 12th in breakaway percentage according to ProFootballFocus.com; BenJarvus Green-Ellis: 33rd. The absence of a dynamic presence in the running game has been noteworthy in so many offensive letdowns in the playoffs. The Patriots have yet to prove that they can run it when opponents think they're going to run it, as so many analysts point out ad nauseam, but they have proven that they can create big plays in the running game, which is just as good because it opens things up over the middle of the field, where the Patriots' pass attack thrives.
- Wes Welker has dropped nine passes this year. That seems like a lot, and the fact that he's dropped at least one in eight of 11 games hasn't helped, but Welker has a lower drop rate than 31 other receivers. Considering the fact that he's been targeted the fourth-most of any receiver in the league, with 110 targets to date, those nine drops seem a little less egregious.
- I'm interested to see how the absence of so many key pass-rushers could impact the Patriots defensive scheme these coming weeks. Who knows if we'll see a little more 3-4, with less of the lighter, nimbler pass-rushers on the roster being available? This is usually around the time of year when head coach Bill Belichick begins implementing a few more fronts and coverages, mixing things up now that he's had a bit more time to install those packages and teach them.
As mentioned earlier, the Patriots could clinch their division with a win this weekend, but they need to win out to give themselves a shot at a first-round bye. The week off will still be essential to ensure that all their best players, including Gronkowski, will be at 100 percent for the playoffs.
The Patriots' remaining five opponents boast a 30-24-1 record, with over half of those wins attributed to the 10-1 Texans and 8-2-1 49ers. The fact that both of those games are at home is a huge plus for the Patriots, but both opponents figure to give New England all they can handle.
As for the task immediately in front of them, the Patriots are well equipped to deal with the Dolphins both offensively and defensively. If they can put the burden on Ryan Tannehill by taking away the running game (one of the few things they do well), they will be able to get stops. Offensively, it will be up to Tom Brady to beat the Dolphins secondary with his arm.
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 via team press releases.
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