The Patriots are beginning to look dominant again after an injury-plagued first half of the season. New England showed fans and critics what they needed to see against the Buccaneers last week in a 28-0 thrashing.
With the No. 4 seed for the playoffs a virtual certainty, Monday night's game at the New York Jets (3-11) and the season finale against the Miami Dolphins are mere formalities.
The Patriots (9-5) don't have to play their starters. But the team finally has some momentum and a three-game winning streak for the first time all season. If there were ever a situation where the Patriots would rest starters against a bad team in a meaningless game, it would have already happened in 2004.
"Honestly, we went through this at the end last year with the San Francisco game (and the starters played most of the game)," said coach Bill Belichick. "Were treating this like a regular week ... I don't think anybody else really knows any other way to do it around here
. I don't think the players do. I don't think the coaches do. It's football season. Maybe I'll see it differently next week. I don't know."
Indeed, without the benefit of a true bye week in the playoffs this year, New England will likely use the Miami game as their de facto day of rest for players who need it. As for this week, there are plenty of areas to keep an eye on as the Patriots fine tune themselves against the Jets:
-- Rushing offense. The Patriots have averaged just 93.3 yards per game on the ground (24th in the NFL). Injuries along the offensive line and to Corey Dillon have been the key contributor to New England's pass-first offensive approach this season. The good news is Dillon is healthy and running with more authority than he has all season while rookies Logan Mankins and Nick Kaczur gain more experience by the week. Dillon will need to more closely resemble the back who ran for 1,600 yards last season if the Patriots want to go deep in the playoffs. It will be a bad sign if New England can't win the battle in the trenches against a Jets team with nothing to play for.
-- First down balance. The Patriots have called 184 pass plays on first down as opposed to just 86 running plays. Some of those calls undoubtedly were linked to the shakiness of the rushing attack early in the season. But with Dillon getting on track again, the Patriots need to strike a better balance with their early-down play calling. Dillon ran for just 49 yards against Tampa Bay, but the Patriots stuck with him and ended up giving him the ball 19 times. Tom Brady is lethal on play fakes, which will be much more effective if defenses actually have to account for a running game.
-- Third down offense. The Patriots have improved to seventh in the NFL with a 41.8 success rate on third down. The return of Kevin Faulk and David Givens from injury certainly shored up that facet of the offense for the Patriots. New England was 8-for-16 on third down three weeks ago against New York as the team held the ball for 38 minutes. The Patriots need to continue to excel on third down and win the battle for time of possession.
-- Return game. The Patriots have not lost any games on special teams this season, but they haven't won any either. The kickoff and punt return units have not given the offense as many short fields as it has in past years. New England has averaged 7.8 yards per punt return (18th) and 21.5 yards on kickoffs (20th). Their longest return of the season was a 54-yard kickoff runback by Bethel Johnson in Week 4. Johnson and Tim Dwight are both capable of more than they have shown so far this season on returns.
-- Pass defense. The Patriots are 30th against the pass this season, yielding 238.7 yards per game. They haven't allowed a passer to top that number since Trent Green threw for 323 yards in Week 12. But since then, each quarterback the Patriots have faced had under 10 NFL starts at the time. Brooks Bollinger will make it a fourth straight week that the Patriots have faced such inexperience. Though the Patriots held Bollinger to under 200 yards in the first meeting, the rookie threw for a career-high 300 yards against the Dolphins last week. Look for the Patriots to continue their frequent blitzing from the front seven to protect the young secondary from getting burned.
Roosevelt Colvin said earlier this week that the defense as a unit is starting to trust one another. The secondary has found able fill-ins at safety in Artrell Hawkins and at cornerback in Ellis Hobbs.
"We have a lot more confidence right now and when you have more confidence, its easier to be more aggressive and get your job done," said Colvin. "Guys have taken it upon themselves to improve individually so we could improve as a team."
Players like Hawkins and Hobbs have not played on the same field together for very long, so playing well against the Jets will go a long way in building confidence and getting on the same page before the playoffs.
-- Quarterback mobility. The Patriots have not faced many mobile quarterbacks this season. Michael Vick was hurt when they played the Falcons. Aaron Brooks and Bollinger are the closest thing the Patriots have seen to a passer who could also be considered a dangerous runner. This is important to note because the Patriots have a very good chance of facing David Garrard and the Jacksonville Jaguars in the first round of the playoffs. Garrard has been solid since Byron Leftwich got hurt, rushing for 132 yards and three touchdowns in four starts. Bollinger had just one 12-yard scramble against the Patriots three weeks ago, but he is capable of moving around if the pocket collapses.
-- Interceptions. New England's defense has gotten better of late at picking off passes, but they still have a total of just nine for the season. Bollinger threw 37 passes in the first game against the Patriots and had just one picked off by Hobbs in garbage time. With the Pats blitzing more linebackers now than in the first meeting, Bollinger should be pressured into more bad throws and, ideally, more interceptions.
-- Secondary communication. Blown coverages in the secondary were one of the main reasons why the Patriots allowed 43 passing plays of over 20 yards in their first 11 games. Since then, New England's secondary has found a winning combo in Hawkins and Wilson at safety. While both came to the Pats as cornerbacks, each has adjusted to their role as defensive play callers. Safeties are an essential part of pre-snap communication because of their location in the middle of the field.
"Part of their job description has to be communication and confirmation of adjustments to the perimeter and the exterior part of the defense," said Belichick.
What to look for: Do the starters get pulled? Players like Brady and Dillon will start the game, but it will be interesting to see how long they are kept in if New England takes a sizeable lead. If the team plays great in the first half and looks like they did against the Buccaneers, most of the reserves will be in the game by the start of the fourth quarter. On defense, it will be interesting to see how Belichick uses players like Hobbs, Asante Samuel, Michael Stone and Hawkins. The secondary has finally found some continuity and it seems logical that they could benefit from spending as much time on the field together as possible.
Notes: The Patriots have allowed an average of 9.8 points in their last six games.
Jets defensive linemen Shaun Ellis and Dewayne Robertson are both listed as questionable on the injury report. ... In its last three games, New England has allowed 85 total rushing yards.
Colvin has a sack in four straight games.
A franchise-record twelve different receivers have caught touchdown passes for the Patriots this season.
Givens needs one catch to set a new career high (56) for a single season.
The Patriots have allowed 22 passing touchdowns.
Brady this week on the state of the team: "I'm not very happy with where we're at. I know Coach Belichick is not very happy with where we're at. I think there are things we can do a lot better. I think that's why we're out here practicing and I think that's why this game is so important for us."
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