With the final quarter of the season looming, the Patriots sit at 9-3, in possession of the No. 2 seed in the AFC playoff picture. However, there are still a few things that need to be answered between now and the start of the postseason. As the stretch drive begins Sunday at home against the Browns, here are our top 10 questions for New England, as well as some answers about what faces the Patriots down the road.
CAN AQIB TALIB’S HIP HOLD UP?
A lot of what the Patriots do defensively is dependent on Talib and his health -- one of the reasons New England stalled out in the AFC title game last season was because he was sidelined for a bulk of the game because of his hip woes. While the Patriots should be able to get through the rest of the regular season, the thought of losing someone like Talib for an extended stretch against another playoff team, particularly with the struggles they’ve had when it comes to stopping the run, has to be troublesome. The hip has been enough of an issue for him to miss three games this season -- New England needs to hope that it won’t become an issue in the postseason.
HOW BIG A PROBLEM COULD THE RUN DEFENSE BE?
We covered some of that here with a historical perspective regarding the successes (and failures) of teams that have Super Bowl aspirations who might struggle against the run. While you don’t necessarily need an elite run defense to make it to the Super Bowl, if your run defense is subpar, you need to be really good in at least one other area defensively, and the fact that the Patriots are in the top 10 in pass defense and points allowed certainly lessens the impact. And as Tony Dungy alluded to here, the fact that there’s a Hall of Fame quarterback under center goes a long way toward masking any defensive deficiencies a team may have.
WHAT’S THE FUTURE FOR STEVAN RIDLEY?
History tells us that Bill Belichick isn’t necessarily the type of coach who will bury a running back because of a ball security issue. The question is how you get Ridley back to where he needs to be -- a 1,000-yard rusher who is one of the most talented young backs in the AFC. Between now and the playoffs, the best course of action might be to build his confidence steadily, working him in for 10-15 carries a game between the 20s as part of a running back rotation. Bottom line? Whether it’s scheme-based or a personnel issue and regardless of the work being done by Shane Vereen, LeGarrette Blount and Brandon Bolden, the Patriots will need Ridley between now and the end of the season.
CAN GRONK CONTINUE TO BE GRONK?
For the first time in a year, Rob Gronkowski has returned to something close to full Gronk status -- over his last four games, he has 27 catches for 419 yards and four touchdowns. (That includes two games when he went over 100 yards receiving.) His work as a pass catcher is evident, but his work as a blocker -- particularly in pass protection -- cannot be discounted, especially down the stretch and into the playoffs. As long as he stays healthy, he will be paramount to the success of the New England offense.
CAN TOM BRADY KEEP PLAYING AT THIS LEVEL?
After struggling (for him) to start the season -- he completed 56.6 percent of his passes through the first five games, and in two of those games threw for less than 200 yards -- the quarterback has put together an impressive four-game stretch that has removed all doubt about where he stands physically heading into the stretch run. Over the last four games, he’s 115-for-164 (70 percent) for 1,443 yards, with 10 touchdowns and two interceptions. (Our pal @DeeepThreat has a nice statistical breakdown on Brady here.) Some of that is the return of high-level offensive options like Gronkowski and Vereen, while some of that can be traced back to the fact that he’s starting to click with the younger receivers. Whatever the case may be, it’s clear the quarterback has rediscovered the mojo he was missing at the start of the season. Like Gronk, he has to keep playing at a high level if New England wants to play deep into January.
WILL THE SLOW STARTS BECOME A BIGGER ISSUE?
The slow starts aren’t necessarily a big problem when you’re going up against the Texans or Dolphins. But the remarkable comeback over the Broncos aside, early deficits can create a sizable problem when going against an elite team. Over the last four games, the Patriots have been outscored over the first two quarters by a 61-34 margin, and that includes the 24 first-half points they had against the Steelers. The Patriots have been able to save themselves with some strong performances in the third quarter (the last four games, they’ve outscored opponents in the third by a 62-28 margin), but the slow starts aren’t part of a winning formula when you're talking about winning in January.
OTHER THAN THE BRONCOS, IS THERE ANOTHER LEGITIMATE CHALLENGER IN THE AFC?
On the surface, the Chiefs and Bengals appear to be the two teams that might be able to put together 60 consistent minutes against the Patriots. Kansas City has struggled a bit over the last three weeks, but no one wants anything to do with a playoff game at Arrowhead -- it’s consistently regarded as one of the loudest places in the league. And while it was early in the season (during a stretch when the Patriots were still a work in progress), Cincinnati can point to an October win over New England as proof it can hang with the Patriots. While the Bengals defense appears to be legit, however, there are some concerns as to whether or not Andy Dalton is the type of quarterback who can take a team to the next level.
IS STEPHEN GOSTKOWSKI HAVING THE BEST REGULAR SEASON IN FRANCHISE HISTORY FOR A KICKER?
Gostkowski is 28-for-30 on his field goal attempts this season for a career-high 93.3 percent. (That includes 4-for-5 from 50-plus yards.) He’s also been perfect on all 34 of his extra-point attempts. He’s connected on four major field goals: one that turned out to be a game-winner (with 3:12 left) to beat the Texans, two game-winners (against the Bills and Broncos) and one at the end of regulation to send the game to overtime (against the Jets). By way of comparison, 2004 was arguably Adam Vinatieri’s finest season in a New England uniform -- that year, he was 31-for-33 on field goal attempts (93.9 percent), but 0-for-1 on FG attempts from 50-plus yards. (He also connected on all 48 of his extra-point attempts.) For what it’s worth, Vinatieri didn’t need to kick any game-winners that season -- it shouldn’t be held against him but is worth noting for the purposes of this comparison. While Gostkowski doesn’t have the postseason resume that Vinatieri does, he’s clearly earned the right to be considered one of the best kickers in the league this year, and a dependable offensive option down the stretch and into the playoffs.
IS THERE A ROOKIE WHO IS CAPABLE OF STEPPING UP HIS GAME THIS POSTSEASON?
New England has received sporadic boosts from rookie receivers Aaron Dobson (35 catches, 492 yards, 4 TDs) and Kenbrell Thompkins (32 catches, 466 yards, 4 TDs) over the first 12 games, but the recent surge from rookie defensive backs Duron Harmon and Logan Ryan certain bodes well if the Patriots do suffer any sort of long-term injuries in the secondary. Harmon has seen plenty of playing time the last two weeks because of a thumb injury to Steve Gregory, while Ryan has stepped into Alfonzo Dennard’s role (the second-year corner has been out with a knee problem) and performed well, picking off three passes, good for second on the team behind Talib. With some pass-heavy teams expected to make the postseason, the two rookie defensive backs could be asked to play a big role in the playoffs.
CAN ALL THE CLOSE GAMES HELP THEM IN THE POSTSEASON?
The Patriots have played 12 games, and nine of them have been decided by seven points or less, with two of those games going into overtime. If one more game the rest of the way (regular season or postseason) is decided by seven points or less, it would mark the first time over the course of the last decade New England had played so many close games. (The previous high was nine in 2006, but that included the playoffs.) The average point differential for New England this season is 7.4. While it’s not known if playing so many close games over the course of the regular season ultimately helps you when the postseason rolls around, it certainly can’t hurt. As we explained here, over the course of the last 10 seasons, according to numbers from Pro Football Reference, six of the Super Bowl winners have had an average differential of eight points or less.