With nine games in the books, the Patriots will have the weekend off as they head into their bye week. Considering the offseason changes and the early season injuries, the 7-2 record is a sign they have outperformed some of the expectations that were placed on them at the start of the year. While it hasn't been perfect -- the offense has stumbled at several points, and the defense has suffered some serious losses with season-ending injuries to Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo and Tommy Kelly -- the Patriots have to feel some sense of satisfaction with what they've been able to accomplish.
“To get to 7-2 at this point, it’s pretty cool," quarterback Tom Brady told WEEI on Monday following an astounding 55-31 win over the Steelers. "I know it hasn’t felt that way, we’ve been grinding our way out of these wins. But to be 7-2 at this point is pretty good.”
With that in mind, here are 10 things we've learned about the 2013 Patriots over the first nine games of the season.
TOM BRADY HAS BEEN HERE BEFORE
The quarterback is following a remarkably similar path to a handful of previous seasons over the course of his career, most notably 2006. That season, he was handed the task of winning with a mostly new group of pass catchers, and it took a good chunk of the first half of the season to figure out how they were going to mesh. While there were fits and starts along the way, they made it work and reached the AFC title game as a result. This year, Brady has had plenty of struggles over the first nine games -- he's completed less than 60 percent of his passes (he's never finished at less than 60 percent for the season), his streak of games with a touchdown pass was snapped at 52 in a loss to the Bengals, and he's has had three games in which he's thrown for less than 190 yards. But with a thunderous performance against the Steelers, combined with the return of Rob Gronkowski, Danny Amendola and Stevan Ridley to full health (as well as the upcoming return of Shane Vereen) this year's offense appears to possess the same sort of breakout potential over the second half of the season that the 2006 group had. Whether or not the quarterback and the rest of the passing game will be able to continue clicking ultimately will decide the legacy of the 2013 offense.
ROB GRONKOWSKI CHANGES EVERYTHING
The tight end has just now gotten back to something resembling 100 percent, and his impact against the Steelers was impressive. He looked comfortable working as an occasional blocker (lined up mostly in the hip pocket of right tackle Marcus Cannon), had no problems when it came to chemistry with the quarterback (with nine catches on 10 targets for 143 yards and a touchdown) and showed no ill effects of his time on the shelf. Going forward, he needs to continue to build on that performance and demonstrate that he can sustain that sort of impact going forward. If he can continue to demand the same level of attention he got from the Steelers, his mere presence will open things up for the rest of the pass catchers, particularly Amendola and Julian Edelman underneath. He also affects the way a team plays run defense -- with Gronkowski to focus on, that's less attention on running backs like Ridley and Brandon Bolden.
THEY CAN'T AFFORD ANY MORE INJURIES ON DEFENSE
It is staggering to think the Patriots are 7-2 with two of their defensive stalwarts in Mayo and Wilfork on injured reserve. Those broadsides, coupled with the fact that Kelly went down with a knee issue and landed on IR as well, dealt a serious blow to the New England defense. The Patriots have been able to find guys to plug and play in their absence -- youngsters Chris Jones and Joe Vellano have done as well as could be expected up front, and newcomer Isaac Sopoaga showed up positively on several occasions in his first game against Pittsburgh. But the early injuries -- as well as the recent bumps and bruises suffered by cornerback Aqib Talib (hip) and safety Steve Gregory (thumb) -- have made in painfully evident that while the unit has held together nicely to this point, the defense cannot afford any more losses going forward.
STEPHEN GOSTKOWSKI AND JULIAN EDELMAN ARE TWO OF THE BEST IN THE LEAGUE AT WHAT THEY DO
Gostkowski is having the best year of his career, and could be in line for a Pro Bowl nod if he keeps kicking at this rate. He's hit on 22-of-23 field goal chances, and his success rate is second in the league (behind the Jets' Nick Folk) for any kicker with at least 20 attempts. He made a game-winner to beat the Bills, and banged home a field goal at the end of regulation against the Jets to force overtime. Meanwhile, Edelman's 11.5 punt return yards per game is second among all punt returners with at least 25 opportunities, and has had several nice returns this season, including a 43-yarder against the Steelers and a 38-yarder against the Jets. Edelman's chances at receiver have taken a hit because of the return of Gronkowski and the continued emergence of Amendola, but his special teams value remains off the charts.
EVALUATING A ROOKIE RECEIVER CAN'T BE DONE OVERNIGHT
At the start of the year, it appeared that Kenbrell Thompkins was poised to be the breakout star of the New England passing game. While he had some wobbly moments early, he still had 40 or more yards receiving in his first three games and a whopping 127 (on six catches) in a September win over the Falcons. But Thompkins has come back to the pack and Aaron Dobson has emerged as a consistent threat in the passing game. His drops have been cut back, and his stats have improved dramatically over the last three games, peaking with a five-catch, 130-yard, two-touchdown effort against the Steelers. At this point, Dobson's numbers compare favorably with the gold standard for rookie receivers. Through eight games, he has 31 catches for 454 yards and four touchdowns. As a rookie in 2002, at the same point in the season, Deion Branch had 38 catches for 417 yards and two touchdowns.
DEVIN MCCOURTY IS HAVING A PRO BOWL SEASON
He may not have the showy numbers or deliver the sort of highlight-reel hits that get some of his contemporaries on SportsCenter, but McCourty has distinguished himself to be one of the most important defenders on the team over the course of the first nine games. That's not to say he doesn't make the occasional unbelievable play -- his tipped ball to teammate Marquice Cole against the Dolphins was maybe the most impressive defensive play of the season for New England. Instead, McCourty has displayed an amazing consistency, durability and intelligence over the first nine games. He's never in the wrong spot, has held together a secondary that's been forced to deal with the loss of Talib for three games and played more snaps than anyone on the team when you combine defense and special teams. With McCourty performing as an indispensable piece of the defensive puzzle over the first half of the season, it's easy to see why safeties coach Brian Flores said, "We are all lucky to have him."
GETTING AQIB TALIB HEALTHY IS PARAMOUNT TO THE SUCCESS OF THEIR PASS DEFENSE
Thanks in large part to the versatility and wisdom of McCourty, the Patriots have managed to be competitive in the secondary since Talib went down with a hip injury late in the win over the Saints. Alfonzo Dennard, Kyle Arrington and rapidly improving rookie Logan Ryan all have played a big role as of late. However, Talib's unique ability -- simply put, to have defensive coordinator Matt Patricia point to the opposing team's No. 1 pass catcher and say "You've got him" -- is difficult to replace. While he's not a traditional elite corner, his physicality, speed and flat-out confidence make him one of the best in the game at his position. While the Patriots have managed to get by without him against some of the lesser passing teams, his presence will be absolutely integral down the stretch (against teams like the Broncos) and into the postseason.
BILL BELICHICK UNDERSTANDS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A FUMBLE AND A TAKEAWAY
When Stevan Ridley lost the handle on a first-half chance against the Steelers -- on a play when Pittsburgh safety Troy Polamalu ripped the ball out of his hands -- it looked like Ridley's playing time was going to take a serious dip. After all, the feature back was benched in the season opener for putting the ball on the ground against the Bills. But on the next series, Belichick sent Ridley back out there, and later explained, "Sometimes turnovers are a result of real good defensive plays. Sometimes they’re a result of sloppy plays offensively. I would, unfortunately, have to credit that one to Polamalu. He made a great play, and that’s one of those things you have to live with.” Ridley rewarded Belichick's faith by running for 115 yards on 26 carries, and adding a pair of touchdowns to boot. Ridley has assumed the role of lead back again, and that means good things for the New England offense.
THEY'RE STILL GOOD AT FORCING TAKEAWAYS
The ability to create turnovers has been one of the hallmarks of Patriots teams the last few seasons, and while it hasn't been getting a whole lot of pub this year, New England is still very good at consistently creating turnovers. The Patriots are plus-9 when it comes to takeaways, good enough for second in the AFC behind the Chiefs (plus-15) and third overall in the NFL. (The Cowboys are plus-10.) Leading the way for New England -- which has now forced a turnover in 36 consecutive games, the longest active streak in the league -- is Talib (four interceptions) and McCourty, Rob Ninkovich and Arrington (two forced fumbles each).
MUCH OF THIS TEAM STILL IS A WORK IN PROGRESS
As has been the case several times over the last decade-plus, Belichick and the Patriots are well aware of the fact that September and October are often simply preludes to what really matters -- setting yourself up for that post-Thanksgiving stretch when the real football takes place. New England knows that it's all about improving over the course of the season, with an eye toward peaking in December and January. (Of course, not every team has the luxury of a Hall of Fame coach and quarterback who can spend a couple of months working out any kinks in the system while still managing to stay one of the elite teams in the league.) Ultimately, what this team has done is spend the better part of the last two months fine-tuning, coming up with workable personnel packages and figuring out who fits the scheme on both sides of the ball and who doesn't. The Patriots will have another week or so to keep tweaking the product, but the team that hits the field against the Panthers when returning from the bye will fundamentally be the group that the organization takes down the stretch and into the playoffs. That includes Vereen, who is eligible to return from his IR-designated for return assignment the week after the bye.