So, what do you think?
Back in the summer, would you have taken a 5-2 record seven games into the season, as Tom Brady attempted to get his sea legs under him? Would you have felt good about wins over then-unbeaten Baltimore and Atlanta? Would you have lived with close losses in the Meadowlands and at Mile High?
Yeah, you would’ve.
So far, the season has unfolded fairly well for the Patriots, given the challenges posed by big changes in the coaching staff, a quarterback trying to overcome a devastating injury and loads of turnover on the defense.
The 5-2 record feels just about right. The most encouraging part is that the Patriots have already faced the toughest part of their schedule. In fact, they’ve faced just two bottom feeders so far — the Titans and Bucs over the past two weeks — and those games were gruesome bloodbaths befitting the Halloween season.
How about these Cold, Hard Football Facts? The Patriots held the Titans and Bucs to the following cumulative performance in the passing game:
•13 of 44, 29.5 percent, 165 yards, 3.75 YPA, 1 TD, 5 INT and a 10.7 passer rating.
Yeah, they were bad teams. But a 10.7 passer rating over two games is virtually impossible in this day and age — an era that gives every advantage to the passers. So the Patriots didn’t just beat these bad teams, they humiliated them.
These performances tell us that given the cushy schedule that Indy has faced, the Patriots would probably have the same 6-0 record as the Colts.
So as the Patriots return from their second straight slaughter of an overmatched opponent and prepare for their bye week, the next question is obvious:
What does the rest of the season hold?
The Cold, Hard Football Facts picture a second-half slate that holds few surprises: the Patriots, 5-2 heading into the bye week, will go 7-2 over the final nine games. They’ll finish the season 12-4. They’ll win the AFC East. They’ll host at least one playoff game. They’re travel to Denver or Indy for the divisional round in mid-January. And, then, at that point, we’ll see if this team has recaptured the big-game stones that defined it in the first half of the decade.
Until then, here’s how the Cold, Hard Football Facts see the second half of the year unfolding for the Patriots.
Nov. 8 – vs. Miami
The Dolphins ruined New England’s record 21-game regular-season win streak last year, when they unleashed the wildcat against the Patriots.
Reason for concern: Miami this year is No. 1 on third downs (53.8 percent), No. 2 in time of possession (34:46 per game) — New England is No. 1 – and No. 5 running the ball (4.8 YPA).
Reason for optimism: The fact of the matter is that the wildcat offense — while enjoyable to watch for many of us — is nothing but smoke and mirrors. All the Dolphins have to show for their dominance of the play clock and productivity on the ground this year is a 2-4 record. At the end of the day, the Dolphins win like every other team in the NFL: when they pass well.
The last word: The Dolphins do not pass well enough to beat the Patriots.
Hype factor: Quite a bit if the Dolphins beat the Jets this week; all but none if the Dolphins lose to the Jets this week and fall to 2-5 with a trip to Foxboro looming.
Verdict: The Patriots win and climb to 6-2.
Nov. 15 – at Indianapolis
The Colts are awe-inspiring with their consistency, cranking out victories over the last decade as if they were license plates in a Concord Junction sweat shop. They literally look as good as ever here in 2009 — 6-0 and barely breathing heavy, with four straight wins by at least 17 points.
Reason for concern: You know Indy’s passing game is great. Once again, Peyton Manning leads the NFL in passer rating. But Indy’s pass defense is among the best in the league, too. In fact, right now, they’re No. 1 in the NFL in TD passes allowed (2); No. 1 in INT-to-TD ratio (6 picks, 2 TD); and No. 1 in passing yards per attempt — their opponents average just 5.45 yards every time they throw the ball.
Reason for optimism: Indy’s schedule has been so soft you could cuddle with it on a cold night. The Colts are the only team in the NFL that’s played just one game against a Quality Opponent (a team with a winning record) and they even get three straight home games in November — the 49ers, the Texans and, yes, then the Patriots. New England will pose the first great challenge the Colts have faced all year.
The last word: It will be a gut-check for both teams — as it usually is when these two clubs meet.
Hype factor: As big as it gets in the regular season.
The verdict: The Colts seem to have a little too much firepower on both sides of the ball, especially at home. The Patriots fall to 6-3.
Nov. 22 – vs. N.Y. Jets
Jets fans are pathetic, loathsome creatures, possessing a disorder that plagues fans of second-rate franchises and makes them incapable of rational analysis of their team’s capabilities. They’re just like pathetic, loathsome Red Sox fans, in other words. Exhibit A: in the wake of New York’s 16-9 win over New England in Week 2, Jets fans acted as if they had just won the Super Bowl — just like Red Sox fans after a three-game sweep of the Yankees in May.
Reason for concern: Rex Ryan’s defense has lived up to the hype in one respect: it shut down Tom Brady and the Patriots offense in Week 2, and today stands an impressive No. 3 in the all-important Defensive Passer Rating category. Opposing passers this year have produced a cumulative 63.6 passer rating against the Jets, more than 20 points below the league-wide average for passing efficiency.
Reason for optimism: New York’s passing offense this year has been a disaster with rookie quarterback and hot-dog expert Mark Sanchez at the helm. His passer rating of 58.8 is down near JaMarcus Russell/Jake Delhomme territory.
The last word: When sideline hot dogs are outlawed, only outlaw Mark Sanchez will have sideline hot dogs.
Hype factor: Huge in New York/not so huge in New England (kind of like a mirror image of Red Sox-Yankees).
Verdict: The Patriots confirm their place atop the AFC East hierarchy with a victory over the Jets and improve to 7-3.
Nov. 30 – at New Orleans
Almost 24 years ago to the day — Dec. 2, 1985 — an unbeaten NFC powerhouse that had never won a Super Bowl squared off against a perennial AFC East power led by a Hall of Fame quarterback that was trying to defend the legacy of an undefeated season. Get used to that storyline.
The game 24 years ago was Bears-Dolphins. The game this year will be Patriots-Saints and the stories share a lot of similarities. The Patriots, in all likelihood, will be 7-3 at this point and in control of the AFC East. The NFC powerhouse Saints will in all likelihood be 10-0 and attempting to match New England’s record as the only 16-0 team in NFL history.
Reason for pessimism: The Saints are easily the most complete team in football. Drew Brees and the offense get all the attention. But Darren Sharper and the defense are the best team in the league against the pass (54.6 Defensive Passer Rating), they lead the NFL with 13 picks, they’re No. 2 in the NFL on third downs, allowing opponents to convert just 27.3 percent of attempts, and they’re No. 3 in CHFF’s critical Defensive Hog Index.
Reason for optimism: The Patriots built their rep by knocking powerhouses down a peg or two and they’ve won an NFL record 14 playoff games this decade. The Saints boast two playoff wins in their entire history and are just one season removed from an 8-8 record.
The last word: The Bears-Dolphins battle 24 years ago remains the highest-rated Monday Night Football game in history. Patriots-Saints could challenge that mark.
Hype factor: Through the Superdome roof.
Verdict: New Orleans victory. The Saints are the best team in the NFL until proven otherwise. The Patriots fall to 7-4.
Dec. 6 – at Miami
See Nov. 8 above. Chad Henne might someday become Miami’s proverbial “quarterback of the future.” It won’t happen by December 6. The Patriots improve to 8-4.
Dec. 13 – vs. Carolina
It’s hard to comprehend the fact that the Panthers were 12-4 last year and earned a first-round bye in the playoffs. This year, they’re 2-4 and the only wins have come against pathetic Washington and Tampa teams.
Reason for pessimism: None. The Panthers did everything well last year. They do nothing well this year. For example, they averaged 25.9 PPG last year. They average 15.7 PPG this year.
Reason for optimism: Super Bowl XXXVIII was long ago. Carolina gunslinger Jake Delhomme won over fans around the country that night nearly six years ago when he got up in the face of the mighty Patriots defense and nearly pulled out the victory. But that guy no longer plays in the NFL. Delhomme this year has thrown a league-high 13 picks, with just 4 TDs.
The last word: The Patriots will feast on Delhomme – or whoever’s playing in his place – as they did on underrated passing offenses from Tennessee and Tampa.
Hype factor: Non existent.
Verdict: New England victory. The Patriots improve to 9-4.
Dec. 20 – at Buffalo
Buffalo’s season began by blowing a sure victory against the Patriots in Week 1. The season bottomed out with a 6-3 loss to the Browns on a day when Cleveland quarterback Derek Anderson completed just 2 of 17 passes for 23 yards.
Reason for pessimism: The Bills, despite their struggles, are actually quite good on pass defense. They rank No. 2 in the NFL with a Defensive Passer Rating of 58.0, trailing only the unbeaten Saints in this key indicator. The Bills and Saints are tied atop the defensive leader board with 13 INTs each. Buffalo’s defense could give New England’s offense trouble — much like it did in Week 1 for 57 minutes.
Reason for optimism: The Buffalo offense is an entirely different story, thanks largely to one of the worst offensive lines in football. The Bills can’t protect the passer and can’t convert third downs. In addition, the Patriots have outscored the Bills 163-40 over their last five meetings in Buffalo.
The last word: The Bills have not reached the playoffs since Wade Phillips committed the greatest gaffe in coaching history and benched Doug Flutie before the 1999 postseason. Days after the gaffe, the Bills lost to Tennessee in the first round of the playoffs on a play so improbable it’s known to this day as the “Music City Miracle.” Phillips, meanwhile, has never won a postseason game as a head coach. Some call this coincidence. We call it the Curse of Flutie.
Hype factor: The Bills have not enjoyed Christmas-time hype since Phillips benched Flutie. Have we mentioned it was the greatest gaffe in coaching history?
Verdict: New England’s sixth straight easy win in Buffalo. The Patriots climb to 10-4.
Dec. 27 – vs. Jacksonville
Jack Del Rio has been on our death watch since 2008. He may in fact be out of work by New Year’s Day unless the Jaguars undergo a major turnaround. Consistency has been the team’s biggest problem.
Reason for pessimism: None. Well, no reasons we could articulate with a straight face. Jags quarterback David Garrard has thrown five touchdowns in six games this year – but three of those five came in one game against the Titans. Patriots fans know how well the Titans play pass defense.
Reason for optimism: The Jaguars lost 41-0 at Seattle. There’s no reason to believe their visit to New England will be any prettier.
The last word: The Jaguars are just about as bad in pass defense (99.3 Defensive Passer Rating) as the Titans and Bucs were when they faced the Patriots over the past two weeks. Brady will chew up this team like a certain shark off the shores of Amity Island chewing on Captain Quint.
Hype factor: Non existent.
Verdict: New England victory. That Patriots stand at 11-4 heading into the final week of the season.
Jan. 3 – at Houston
The Patriots have visited Houston just twice since the Oilers left town. The first trip was a last-second 23-20 win over the Texans in 2003; the second trip, two months later, was a last-second, 32-29 win over the Panthers in Super Bowl XXXVIII.
Reason for pessimism: Here’s a Cold, Hard Football Fact that will freeze your nuggets. Houston quarterback Matt Schaub has quietly averaged an amazing 7.78 yards per pass attempt in his career. Only nine passers in all of NFL history have been more prolific. Five are in the Hall of Fame (Graham, Luckman, Van Brocklin, Young, Starr) and two are destined for it (Warner, Roethlisberger). A guy named Johnny Unitas (7.76 YPA) is one spot behind Schaub. Houston’s quarterback can tear up the Patriots if they’re not on top of their game.
Reason for optimism: C’mon, it’s the Texans. They’ve never had a winning record, they’ve never appeared in the playoffs and they’ve never beaten the Patriots (0-2). They still can’t stop the run (surrendering 4.67 YPA) and they can’t pressure the quarterback. Their Defensive Hogs are still abysmal.
The last word: The Texans will be fighting for a wild card spot. The Patriots might already have the AFC’s No. 3 seed secured.
Hype factor: It could be one of the biggest games in the short, not-so-happy history of Texans football.
Verdict: A New England victory if it matters. A Houston victory if it doesn’t. Patriots end the season 12-4.
The Colts and Broncos await.