Whether the New England Patriots can luck (no pun intended) into a first-round bye or not, they'll need to do a few things well if they want to be successful in the playoffs.
Effectively Run the Ball
Since the start of the season, it's been clear that Josh McDaniels is committed to establishing and maintaining an effective running game.
It hasn't all been rainbows and unicorns (see: Week 3 vs. Ravens), but that commitment has paid off, as the Patriots have ranked in the top 10 in rushing offense in the NFL throughout the season and currently rank eighth.
With Rob Gronkowski likely to return for the playoffs, opposing defenses will be focused on shutting down New England's potent passing game first and foremost.
When defenses are in their nickel and dime packages trying to stop the pass, Stevan Ridley (1,189 yards) and company will need to take advantage of the smaller personnel and gain yards on the ground.
The rushing attack will also have to be effective when teams are expecting the run, particularly if the Patriots find themselves with a lead late in a game and need to run some time off the clock.
The better the Pats run the ball in the playoffs, the more likely they are to find success.
Despite leading the league in turnover differential at 23-plus, the Patriots have uncharacteristically been turning the ball over.
Brady in particular has thrown two interceptions in each of the last two games after only throwing four prior.
This has to stop.
The Patriots are a methodical offense that thrives off precision and accuracy. Turnovers throw the whole thing off.
The Pats currently have a laundry list of injuries, including injuries to key players like Logan Mankins and Wes Welker.
While most of these injuries don't seem to be too serious, it's easy to see that this team is beat up.
While a first-round bye would be great, it's not a guarantee, as the Pats would need to beat the Dolphins Sunday and also have at least either Denver (vs. Kansas City) or Houston (at Indianapolis) lose.
The Patriots will need to be at full health or close to it come playoff time, so it goes without saying that Bill Belichick's management of the health of his roster will certainly be tested in the coming days.
Most Patriots fans would agree that there is a side of this Patriots team that looks completely unstoppable at times.
We saw this side of the team most recently when they annihilated the Houston Texans on national television back in Week 14.
This side of the Patriots puts points up early and often and seems to take the ball away at will.
This side of the Patriots is a group of killers.
If the Patriots want the season to end with a shiny trophy, most importantly they need to recapture their killer instinct and ride it all the way to New Orleans.