As the calendar flips to December, the New England Patriots are right where they seem to always be—gearing up for another run at the Super Bowl.
While the final weeks of the season may seem like Groundhog Day for many fans—with the Patriots wrapping up another division title along with home-field advantage for the fourth straight year—this season has followed a much different script than most.
For the first time in nearly a decade, the Patriots opened this season with far more questions on the offensive end than on defense.
After the first seven games, Brady was 30th in the league in yards per attempt, 29th in completion percentage and 29th in touchdown percentage. He was completing 55.7 percent of his passes and in the midst of one of the worst seasons of his career.
But then the Pittsburgh Steelers came to town and everything began to click.
With each passing week, Brady and the rest of the offense have gotten on the same page and they are now firing on all cylinders, putting up 143 points over their last four games.
The biggest difference has been the return of Gronkowski, who is proving to be not only the best tight end in the league, but one of the best all-around players in the game as well. Over the last four weeks, Gronkowski has averaged 104.8 yards per game, catching a total of 27 passes and three touchdowns.
As Gronk goes, so does this Patriot offense. He is preparing for what should be his first playoff run at full health in three years.
The Patriots have also been very effective at running the ball all season, even with a fumble-prone Stevan Ridley as the lead back.
As a team, New England has averaged 122.8 rushing yards per game and has the ability to go to its workhorse in Ridley or a running-back-by-committee approach featuring Shane Vereen, LeGarrette Blount and Brandon Bolden.
Despite the fact that Danny Amendola has been a major bust in replacing Welker, he is still a very talented player and can have a big impact over the rest of the season—as long as he is healthy.
Add in Julian Edelman, who is in the midst of the best season of his career, and a pair of talented rookies that have shown great flashes in Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins, and this Patriots offense is far better than we could have ever expected.
The bigger question now goes back to the defense, a unit that was carrying the team early in the year before Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo went down with season-ending injuries.
Wilfork and Mayo won't be coming back for the playoffs, so the fate of the Patriot defense will be in the hands of cornerback Aqib Talib. Unfortunately, he has been battling a hip injury of his own, causing his play to suffer.
What is the biggest question mark for the Patriots entering the playoffs?
If Talib can get healthy and back to his early-season form—when he shut down Vincent Jackson, Julio Jones, A.J. Green and Jimmy Graham in consecutive weeks—and the offense can carry the load, this New England defense is certainly championship-caliber.
This has been arguably the most adverse regular season for the Patriots in the Brady-Bill Belichick era. The team has overcome major losses in the offseason and over the course of the year, and has already proven it can beat its biggest threat in the AFC.
Providing they can stay healthy, this may finally be the year for Brady and the rest of the Patriots offense to lead the team on a deep playoff run that may end with his fourth Lombardi Trophy.