Year in and year out, the New England Patriots are among the favorites to win the Super Bowl at the end of the NFL season. Led by one of the greatest quarterbacks and one of the greatest coaches in the history of the league, they have a solid foundation that simply always keeps them at the top of the league.
But here's the reality: the Patriots have the longest championship drought among the four major sports teams in Boston. You have to rewind all the way back to February of 2005 when New England defeated Philadelphia to see the last time Tom Brady raised the Lombardi Trophy above his head.
With another battle against Philadelphia coming up this week and with the Patriots sitting atop the AFC East at 7-3, it's time to figure out the recipe moving forward.
What do the Patriots need to do from here on out to bring their fourth banner back to Gillette Stadium?
It may sound like a ridiculous claim in regards to a team that has lost just one of their past twenty-plus regular season home games, but the Patriots must get their home-field swagger back.
And more importantly, they must finally carry that swagger into the postseason.
In New England's two most recent playoff home games, they have put forth excruciatingly weak and frustrating efforts in front of the Gillette Stadium crowd. With a relatively easy schedule ahead of them in their final six regular season games, the Patriots may be looking at a first-round bye and another home game in the divisional round.
They are going to need that unwavering confidence. With a particularly young defense, there can be no doubts lingering in the back of their minds when the ball is kicked off in that opening game.
If they don't figure out how to defend their home field the way they do during the regular season, Bill Belichick and his football team may be headed home early for the seventh straight season.
One of the great criticisms that the New England Patriots have taken throughout the past few years is that their offense is too one-dimensional. Without a consistent running attack, defenses will be able to figure out Tom Brady and render the entire offense useless.
Ultimately, these criticisms are very valid.
This isn't the 2007 version of the Patriots offense. Without a deep threat and with a heavy dependence on Wes Welker in the slot and their spectacular tight ends, the running game has once again become an extremely important variable in the Patriots' equation for success.
When you look at BenJarvus Green-Ellis, you see a rock-solid runner with a pretty good combination of speed and power. More importantly, though, you see a man who simply does not fumble the football and seemingly always gets some kind of positive yardage. In a nutshell, you know what you're getting with Green-Ellis.
Further, it's the offensive line that really dictates the success of this running game. Without a game-breaker like Adrian Peterson or LeSean McCoy in the backfield, the Patriots need their big linemen to execute their run-blocking schemes and consistently open up holes for their backs to burst through. Without the ability to do so, you're opening the door for teams to bring added pressure on Brady and allot all of their resources to defending the pass.
Everyone has ragged on the New England defense—their pass defense, in particular—for being among the worst in the NFL this season. Yardage wise, it's completely true. The Patriots give up buckets and buckets of yardage to seemingly every offense they go up against.
Still, Bill Belichick and his team have no choice but to keep moving forward. Their inexperienced, injury-stricken set of defensive backs still has the future of this team on their plate.
They will need smart and disciplined play from their safeties.
Guys like James Ihedigbo, Sterling Moore and Sergio Brown will not be asked to become Pro Bowl safeties. They won't be asked to win them the football game—that is Tom Brady's job. They will simply need to keep the ball in front of them, make the routine plays and avoid the big mistakes.
With the front seven being the clear strength of this defense, the safeties are going to need to play smart football and keep the defensive back unit relatively in check.
Some fans were outraged when Bill Belichick neglected to draft an elite pass-rusher during the first round of the NFL Draft back in April.
Update: the New England Patriots have found one.
Defensive end Andre Carter has been everything the Pats could have asked for thus far. Having registered a team-leading nine sacks already, Carter has righted the ship with this pass-rush and has given the Patriots defense new life. Does it come as a surprise that in their two best performances of the season, the Patriots have upped their sack totals on the opposing quarterback?
The bottom line is that New England's secondary is a youthful and, frankly, untalented group of players at this point in their careers. With their two most talented defensive backs—cornerback Devin McCourty and safety Patrick Chung—sidelined due to injury, you may have a tough time figuring out whether the Patriots secondary is actually even as good as that of the LSU Tigers.
Consequently, the team will see poor results if they ask these guys to hold their pass coverage for extended amounts of time each play.
This may be the biggest reason why an effective and consistent pass-rush is so important for the New England defense to succeed. If you can get to the quarterback, you aren't simply getting in his head and hurrying his throws. You're also making the game easier on your secondary and allowing them to minimize the space they give their receivers.
As I've watched the Patriots struggle to three straight postseason losses since the 2008 Super Bowl, there has been one common denominator that has prevented them from finding their rhythm and building a lead.
You only have to look back to their most recent two losses this season to understand this concept. The Steelers are notorious for their exotic blitz packages, and those schemes overpowered the Patriots' blocking schemes a few weeks ago.
Even during the first half of their Monday Night Football matchup with the Kansas City Chiefs, the Patriots struggled to handle the extra blitzers and saw their quarterback lying on his back more often than they saw him raising his hands for a touchdown.
As hopeful as a fan may be, there really is no dodging the fact that the New England defense is far from where it needs to be. Even with consistent development, it will remain the weakest link on Bill Belichick's team. The offense will dictate the success of the Patriots, and pressure on Brady has been the accomplishment that most often correlates to a victory for the opposition.
If New England wants to hang another banner, it will be up to each and every guy to play his role.
Without all five of these factors, it's pretty tough to see the Patriots getting to Indianapolis for the Super Bowl—let alone beating the Green Bay Packers, maybe the most fine-tuned machine we have witnessed since those 2007 New England Patriots.
Be sure to follow Derek Robinson on Twitter. @DRobMachine