5 Biggest Questions the Patriots Must Answer Before the 2014 NFL Playoffs

James Christensen@@nepatriotsdraftContributor IDecember 17, 2013

5 Biggest Questions the Patriots Must Answer Before the 2014 NFL Playoffs

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    Tom Brady is searching for answers.
    Tom Brady is searching for answers.Scott Halleran/Getty Images

    Heading into the 2014 NFL playoffs, the New England Patriots are a flawed team.

    Granted, the Patriots have shown that on any particular Sunday, they can beat anyone in the NFL. Quality wins over the Denver Broncos (with Rob Gronkowski) and the New Orleans Saints (without Gronk) have shown the dizzying heights that this team can play at.

    If the second half against Denver was New England's acme, the abysmal opening frames against the Houston Texans and Cleveland Browns showcased the Pats' nadir.

    As talented as the Patriots are at certain positions, their injury-riddled roster fails to afford them an abundance of easy matchups. 

    Here are six questions that the Patriots need to answer before starting their run in the 2014 NFL playoffs.

Can the Patriots Score in the Red Zone?

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    Winslow Townson/Getty Images

    Rob Gronkowski isn't walking through that door. 

    Losing your biggest and strongest weapon is never conducive to red-zone success, but a team featuring three receivers under 5'11"—Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola and Josh Boyce—is going to miss a man of Gronkowski's stature.

    In Monday's conference call, head coach Bill Belichick wasn't happy with the overall execution inside the 20-yard line:

    I thought we had a mixture of plays in the red area. The first drive, we hit the quick out to Julian [Edelman] down there on their sideline and we were second-and-four, which isn't a bad place to be and ended up not being able to finish it. Then I think on the other series, we ran the ball on second down – first down threw it, second down we ran it, got it to third-and-two and they pressured us and we weren't able to get a good execution on the passing game. They were trying to disguise their coverages.

    They pressured us some down there, they showed some pressure and pulled out of it, which are things they've done in the past. It's kind of what they do, it wasn't anything we hadn't seen before but they did a good job of it. We probably need to collectively, from our plays to our execution, just obviously need to be a little bit sharper down there. 

    While Patriots fans will have to wait until 2014 to see Gronkowski again, there are two potential saviors waiting in the wings for New England.

    Aaron Dobson—6'3"—and Kenbrell Thompkins—6'0"—are two players who have the ability to succeed in the end zone. Instead of having to separate horizontally—tougher to do in such a compacted area—Dobson and Thompkins have the leaping prowess to win on fade routes. The threat of the fade also opens up the quick slant.

    If the Patriots can't improve on their current red-zone touchdown scoring rate—55.17 percent—their margin of error will get that much smaller.

Can Sealver Siliga and Co. Stop the Run?

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    Robert Mayer-USA TODAY Sports

    After losing Vince Wilfork, Tommy Kelly and Jerod Mayo to injury, porous is the best way to describe the Patriots run defense.

    When Sealver Siliga entered the lineup, however, things certainly improved. Doug Kyed from NESN.com explains in further detail:

    It seems impossible that a player who has bounced around the NFL for three seasons could be the cure-all to a unit that ranked 31st in the league in rushing yards per game entering Week 15. They were giving up 132.5 yards per game and 4.4 per carry. Siliga has played well, but he’s likely not the cure to the struggling unit, just the best fill in the Patriots currently have.

    When Siliga was on the field against the Browns in Week 14, his first game as a starter, the Patriots allowed 39 yards on 20 carries to running backs for a clip of 1.95 yards per carry. New England allowed 64 yards on 17 carries for 3.8 yards per carry when Siliga was on the field on Sunday against the Dolphins. The Patriots allowed 4.3 yards per carry on designed runs throughout the game.

    While Siliga isn't going to be featured on any All-Pro rosters, he has been an improvement over Chris Jones, Isaac Sopoaga and Joe Vellano.

    With the Kansas City Chiefs and Indianapolis Colts—two potential playoff opponents—both ranked in the top 10 of yards per rush, defending the run will be key down the stretch.

Where Did the Turnovers Go?

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    David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

    After 36 straight games forcing a turnover, the Patriots defense was shut out against the Carolina Panthers and Cam Newton in Week 11. Unfortunately for New England, that has become a trend.

    The Patriots haven't caused a turnover in 10 quarters.

    — Doug Kyed (@DougKyedNESN) December 15, 2013

    Ten quarters? Against the Texans, Browns and Dolphins? While there is certainly some luck involved in turnovers—especially fumble recoveries—10 quarters is a trend.

    With Aqib Talib (hip), Alfonzo Dennard (knee), Steve Gregory (finger) and Kyle Arrington (groin) all banged up, it might be that the Patriots secondary is choosing to take fewer chances.

    If that is the case, look for the Patriots' chances of advancing in the playoffs to increase as the secondary gets healed.

Can the Defense Get off the Field on Third Down?

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    David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

    The Patriots are allowing opponents to convert on third down 43.4 percent of the time, good for 29th in the league. Each third-down conversion that the defense allows keeps Tom Brady—and an offense with very little margin of error—off the field.

    Andre Carter—who hasn't recorded a stat the last three weeks—hasn't had as big of an impact as many Patriots fans hoped. He stepped in for Michael Buchanan, the rookie who was having trouble keeping contain. While Carter has been solid in that regard, Buchanan was the more explosive player.

    With Carter's lack of production, you might see the Patriots try some fresher legs in the nickel defense. Whether that means letting Jamie Collins rush the passer or giving Buchanan or Jake Bequette a chance, a change needs to be made.

Can New England Win on the Road?

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    David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

    After their 24-20 loss in Miami, the Patriots have now suffered four road losses on the year. Their road record isn't as bad as the 2009 season where they lost six of their seven road games—the eighth game being played in London—but four losses away from the friendly confines of Gillette Stadium is concerning for a team that is in a dogfight for home-field advantage.

    Belichick, however, doesn't seem to put much stock in the road vs. home discussion. He explained in his weekly conference call this morning:

    We've had close games on the road; we've had close games at home. Look, we have eight games on the road; we have eight games at home. That's the way it's going to be every year. We've had close ones on the road; we've had close ones at home. 

    The Patriots will get a chance to practice their play on the road in Week 16, facing off against the Baltimore Ravens in their second away game in a row. 

    All statistics courtesy of TeamRankings.com and the Patriots Media Relations Department.