With five games in the books so far in the season, the defining characteristics of this Patriots team have begun to emerge.
What we have seen is a decent team—a team that performs well in spurts, but lacks any kind of sustained excellence. Basically, a team like every other NFL team.
The Patriots are emerging from an era in which excellence was a given, an expected quantity in any given game. This year's team, though, has several exploitable, well-defined weaknesses.
How does one beat the Patriots this year? The following are important factors:
Have an accurate, risk-averse quarterback
Denver had several long drives against the Pats basically centered around their short passing game. They did not really connect on any long plays of consequence, but Kyle Orton was able to target his receivers, make conversions, and keep the ball out of the hands of the Patriots offense.
The common denominator? Neither quarterback took many risks, but they forced the New England defensive backfield to make plays. That leads us to our next point.
Have receivers who can either elude, or power through, first contact
After the ball has been placed in the receivers' hands, it's up to them to make plays.
Remember, the quarterbacks have been throwing short passes. If the receivers are tackled immediately, getting a first down becomes that much harder.
Brandon Marshall was able to muscle his way past Patriots defenders, and Eddie Royal was able to run around them. Both were instrumental to their team's success.
Frustrate Tom Brady
Brady is the key to his team's offense. Hence, if you are able to put him off his game, you are much more likely to win.
The Jets were able to accomplish this through a variety of exotic blitzes, overloading one side and forcing Brady to guess where the pressure would come from.
The Broncos were able to accomplish this largely by luck—when left tackle Matt Light was forced to leave the game because of an injury, Brady became noticeably skittish. He went from having a Pro Bowler protecting his blind side to a rookie.
Nonetheless, the result was the same. After Light left, the offense basically did nothing.
Match up Randy Moss with a shutdown corner
In both the Denver and New York games, Moss faced off against incredible corners. Darrelle Revis could be the best young cornerback in the league, and Brady has always hated to challenge Champ Bailey.
Moss was nearly shut out of both games.
Teams seem to be challenging Moss, preventing him from getting short passes. There have been times when Moss has run free in the secondary, but Brady has been unable to hit him with the deep pass.
Until Brady can prove he can connect deep, teams will likely focus on preventing quick completions to Moss.
Debut a new offensive package
The Patriots have seemed vulnerable in recent years to new offensive sets.
Last year, the Wildcat took this team completely by surprise. Denver's "Wild Horses" offense, though not having the runaway success Miami did, put the Patriots' defense on its heels in the beginning of the game, setting the stage for success on the team's typical plays.
For some reason, the team seems to go into shock when it sees something new. Perhaps Bill Belichick's emphasis on situational football loses its effectiveness when an opponent reacts to the situations in a different way.
This Patriots team is by no means done. They still have the talent and coaching to compete and be successful.
However, the coaching staff clearly has its work cut out for itself. If the team cannot address its problems, other teams will exploit them ruthlessly.