Despite a host of issues on defense, the Patriots are on a seven-game winning streak with just the visit of the Buffalo Bills on New Year's Day standing in their way of home field advantage throughout the playoffs.
Key to their success, as ever, is the reigning league MVP Tom Brady. In a quarterback-friendly league, the future Hall of Famer is a difference maker who is enjoying one of the best statistical seasons of his career.
Does it leave room for improvement in the playoffs, or is he already at his very best?
Let's examine his report card for the 2011 regular season.
After 15 games, Brady has completed 65.6 percent of his passes, leaving him on a par with his 2009 and 2010 numbers, but behind his record-breaking 2007 season (68.9 percent).
He trails Aaron Rodgers (68.3 percent) and Drew Brees (70.7) in this category too, although in Brees' case, his career year has been assisted by favorable conditions, with 11 of 16 games under a roof, and the other five played in warm or mild weather outdoors.
There is very little to separate the top three quarterbacks in the league on accuracy, even this season, but Rodgers receives my vote. Subtract the 11 drops by Jermichael Finley, and he would improve to 70.3 percent.
It would be wrong to think of Brady as inaccurate, though. His game is fully functioning on the short and intermediate routes, with nearly 74 percent of passes under 10 yards completed—again, just a fraction behind Rodgers and Brees, but elite all the same.
Brady struggled with his form in the first few games of the season, most notably in the loss to the Buffalo Bills in Week 3, and the win in Oakland the following week. Then at the midway point, an elbow injury and a tough slate of defenses— the Dallas Cowboys, Pittsburgh Steelers, New York Giants and New York Jets all faced in consecutive weeks—slowed his progress.
But with one of the easier second-half schedules in the league, Brady cashed in, completing over 70 percent of his passes in back to back weeks against the Philadelphia Eagles and Indianapolis Colts.
Overall, his arm and his action are in fine order heading into the playoffs, and any early season miscues are long behind him.
Bill Belichick has endured more criticism for his skills as a general manager this season than ever before. Given the state of the defensive backfield, most of the negativity is justified, but you can be sure that Tom Brady has a different opinion.
Ask Brady how he feels about the selection of Rob Gronkowski in the second round of the 2010 draft. "Gronk" has elevated the dink-and-dunk offense into a system that delivers big plays, with huge chunks of yards after the catch.
Revisit the Week 14 victory over the Washington Redskins for a classic example of the mismatches created by Gronkowski. Catching the ball at the 50, Gronkowski breaks two tackles, shrugs off a third and rumbles his way to the 11-yard line.
Brady has 12 plays of 40-plus yards this year, on a par with 2009, and just behind the 15 plays collected in 2007. Considering that Randy Moss used to be the centerpiece of the offense, and that Brady has completed just one of 14 passes thrown over 30 yards this year, the current crop of receivers are proving that they can hit home runs too, using a different approach.
Wes Welker and Rob Gronkowski provide the yards after the catch, but Brady puts them in space on favorable matchups with his precision throws.
Brady needs 103 more yards against Buffalo on New Year's day to reach 5,000 passing yards for the first time in his career. That Drew Brees has already done so, and stands 190 yards ahead of Brady, shouldn't overlook the fact that this has been a rare statistical season for both men.
The closest Brady has ever been to Dan Marino's magical 1984 season was his own record year of 2007, when he accumulated 4,806 yards and a staggering 50 touchdowns, with just eight interceptions.
He'll end up with at least 36 scores this year and 11 picks, slightly more human totals, but elite nevertheless. However, Aaron Rodgers (45) and Brees (41) will end up with more touchdowns, and better passer ratings too.
Rodgers is on course to set the single-season record with a 122.5 passer rating through 15 games, which would even eclipse Brady in 2007 (117.2).
Compared with his rivals for the league MVP this season, Brady's numbers are just a shade behind Rodgers and Brees, but don't overlook the fact that this has been a top-three season for the three-time Super Bowl champion.
At the halfway point of the season, Brady was on pace for a career-high 20 interceptions. Since the loss to the New York Giants, he has thrown one in seven games.
The strength of the offensive line contributed to Brady's upturn in ball security, as did a soft schedule in November and December. But his consistency and improved form can also be attributed to an injury-free run, and better use of his offensive weapons.
Seven of Brady's interceptions came on passes between 11 and 20 yards, some of which were to Gronkowski on seam routes in traffic. As the season has developed, Brady has learned to trust the open receivers more, using Aaron Hernandez when Gronkowski is covered, or Deion Branch, as shown in the Week 12 win in Philadelphia, reducing the likelihood of turnovers.
Overall, Brady has protected the ball very well, and aside from the four-pick debacle in Buffalo in Week 3, has been as miserly with turnovers as ever before.
He will never match the four-pick season of 2010, which was a combination of luck and laser precision throwing, but there has been little to criticise since the two interceptions against the Giants in Week 9.
Over in Green Bay, Aaron Rodgers is having an other-wordly season, throwing just six picks in 15 games. Rodgers has set the standard this year, but Brady is not far behind.
Brady has taken 28 sacks in 2011, ranked 18th in the league, ahead of Drew Brees (24), but way behind Aaron Rodgers (36) or Ben Roethlisberger (38).
I mention Rodgers and Roethlisberger because they have excelled behind struggling offensive lines, suffering from injuries to key tackles in both cases.
In New England, the loss of Dan Koppen in Week 1 was further compounded by injuries to Sebastian Vollmer and Dan Connolly, leaving rookie Nate Solder in the mix at right tackle, and third or fourth choice centers Ryan Wendell and Nick McDonald to exchange with Brady.
Add to that the loss of Matt Light and Logan Mankins in the Miami Dolphins game on Christmas Eve, and most teams would fold with the turnover in personnel. Not New England.
Dante Scarnecchia is one of the most underrated coaches in the league, and he has shown this season that he can work with rookies and backups to provide solid protection for Brady, whatever the lineup.
Brady has adjusted well in-game to release the ball quicker when faced with pressure—using the Miami game again as the example—and still uses his feet to slide around in the pocket to avoid the sack. Brady, Brees and Peyton Manning are the best examples of this skill being applied in today's NFL.
Interior pressure has been a problem at times for the line—understandable given the circumstances—but unless you have elite mobility at the quarterback position, there is little you can do to escape a defensive lineman running straight at you.
Brady will never look like Cam Newton does under pressure, but that doesn't change his grade. He is one of the best in the business at making plays before the rush reaches him.
Ever since Brady relieved an injured Drew Bledsoe back in 2001, his leadership skills have been evident in all that he does out on the field. He is the embodiment of Bill Belichick's style and demand for excellence, and players around him respond in kind.
Hallmarks of a leader include coolness under pressure, clutch play and leading your team to victory from behind. Against these criteria, Brady is as good as it gets.
For situations under pressure, look no further than Week 11 against the Kansas City Chiefs or Miami Dolphins in Week 16, where heavy blitzing left Brady bruised and scoreless for much, or all of the first half. His experience, combined with offensive adjustments designed by Bill O'Brien, allowed the Patriots to recover in games where an underdog showed its teeth.
There are few examples of Brady's clutch play this year, because most victories have come from big fourth quarter leads, but the final two minute drive to clinch the win at home to the Dallas Cowboys remains one of the highlights of the Patriots season.
And in the rare situations where the Patriots have found themselves behind, Brady has hauled them back into contention. 12 touchdowns and no interceptions when losing, with a passer rating of 107.8, is masterful.
Finally, a word for the no-huddle offense. Peyton Manning might be the de facto offensive coordinator in Indianapolis, but when it comes to hurry-up football, Brady is never bettered.
Decision-making is a team effort, from coaches calling plays, to quarterbacks checking into alternatives, using audibles and setting protection from the line of scrimmage.
With that in mind, it is difficult to grade Brady in isolation of the support around him, but watching him with time in the pocket provides an insight into his ability to read a defense.
As stated earlier, Brady rarely forces throws into coverage. His favorite receiver has always been the open one, and in recent times, the same names continue to gain separation—Wes Welker, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.
No quarterback in the game can execute a play call better than Brady. He may have his equals in Rodgers, Manning and (maybe) Brees, but nobody delivers a strike, right on target, to the open man any better than he does.
And in a surprising development this year, Brady has used his legs to extend the play, rushing for 20 first downs, 109 yards and three scores. His Michael Vick impersonation will take some work, but sensing that defenses are daring him to throw into sub-packages, he has taken the yards on offer more than ever before.
For a team making a run for Super Bowl glory, all games are key, and there is little room for error. But in the games that have shaped the course of the season the most, Brady has delivered elite performances more often than not.
Let's get the bad news out of the way first. Whilst he didn't lay an egg in the loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers, he was underwhelming, throwing for 198 yards, two touchdowns and zero picks. The Steelers defense forced multiple three-and-outs, allowing Roethlisberger to control the clock and slash the most porous secondary in the NFL.
In other spots this year, it's been a much different story. In both clashes with the New York Jets, Brady dominated, particularly in East Rutherford, with the Patriots coming off a two-game losing streak. His efforts that day torched the Jets for 329 yards, three scores and no interceptions.
On the road against the Broncos to clinch the AFC East, Brady put on a passing clinic for Tim Tebow, going for 320 yards and two scores in the face of a vaunted Denver pass-rush, and an early assault from the option offense, forcing the Patriots to come from behind in a 41-23 blowout.
And finally, the Dallas Cowboys. Rob Ryan's defense troubled the Patriots, forcing four turnovers, sacking Brady three times and hitting him eight more. He sustained his throwing elbow injury mid-game, yet found a way to tough it out on the final drive, delivering the game-winning strike to Aaron Hernandez.
He might not be perfect this season, but he's pretty damn close.
It's amazing to think that in a season where Tom Brady will probably break Dan Marino's 5,084-yard passing record, he will end up in the shade when compared to Drew Brees or Aaron Rodgers.
However, when we reflect on the 2011 regular season, the facts will show that Brady was—statistically speaking, at least—the third best quarterback in the NFL.
To summarize his body of work, Brady has performed at an elite level in 2011, with only a few lapses in what has otherwise been comparable with his performances from 2007 or 2010.
The fact that Rodgers or Brees have shown fewer signs of fallibility will count against him in the MVP voting this year, but that will have no bearing on his ability to lead the Patriots to their fifth Super Bowl in the Brady era.
Allowing personal bias to show through, I would still take Brady as my quarterback of choice going into the playoffs this year. He has done it all before, and for longer than his rivals. I wouldn't rule out his performances going up another notch in January, as the business end of the season rolls through Foxboro.
Final Grade: A