Another week, another game, another relatively systematic dismantling. The Patriots now will celebrate the mid-semester break known as bye week, returning in time for a Nov. 8 meeting with the Miami Dolphins. When the Patriots take to the field next, nearly a month will have passed since they last faced a legitimate opponent.
"We know the whole second half of the season really has a lot of challenges from week to week," Patriots coach Bill Belichick told reporters in the wake of yesterday’s 35-7 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. "But we’ll tackle Miami first."
In the interim, obvious questions remain: What exactly do we have here? How good are these guys really? Are the Patriots truly a Super Bowl contender, or a paper tiger that will throttle bad teams and lose to good ones, like last year’s edition?
Seven games into the journey during which we ultimately learn those answers, here are seven observations on the 2009 Pats:
1. Tom Brady is getting there. Admit it: For all the throws Brady has made this season, none bothered you more than the interception he threw in the end zone yesterday at the start of the second quarter. Still, you can’t help but get the feeling that some of Brady’s mistakes against the Bucs came out of sheer boredom.
Obviously, the competition the last two weeks has been wretched. Nonetheless, a game is a game is a game, and Brady has piled up nine touchdown passes and 688 yards while completing 76.5 percent of his passes over the last two weeks. The numbers may not be as good in November, but the Pats will need him to be every bit as good -- or better.
2. Other than Tom Brady, Wes Welker is the most important man on the offense. Want to hear something extraordinary? With yesterday’s 10-catch, 107-yard performance, Welker now leads the NFL in receptions. And he has missed two games. Welker yesterday caught everything thrown at him -- 10 for 10 -- giving further credence to a recent Sports Illustrated poll that identified him as the most underrated player in the league.
Here? We all know how good Welker is. Of the Patriots’ two losses this year, Welker missed one (at the Jets) and single-handedly carried the New England offense in the other (at the Broncos). Can anybody cover this guy?
3. Even without Richard Seymour, the defense is better than one might have guessed. The Pats again have benefited from the schedule here, but let’s give credit where credit is due. During a first half in which the Patriots have faced just two teams that rank in the top half of the league in scoring -- Baltimore and Atlanta -- they have allowed fewer points per game than any team in the league but Denver and Indianapolis. Neither of those clubs has played as many games as the Pats have.
Take this for what it’s worth, but the Patriots thus far have allowed the fewest rushing touchdowns in the league (one). Some of that is the result of lopsided affairs in the last two weeks. Some of that is because teams like the Broncos and Ravens opted to throw rather than run. Regardless, as Belichick would say, it is what it is.
4. The Patriots might have the best tandem of safeties in the league. On some level, we expected this from Brandon Meriweather, a former first-round draft pick who started to show signs of developing late last season. Yesterday, Meriweather had two interceptions in the first six minutes, returning one for a touchdown. If plays like that continue, he’ll go to the Pro Bowl.
As for Brandon McGowan, who could have guessed this? He forces fumbles and recovers them, all while becoming a major stabilizing force in an area of the team riddled with questions to start the year. Key guy.
5. The running game still needs some work. The problem with a backfield of Fred Taylor, Sammy Morris, and Laurence Maroney is that all three of them have had a history of injuries. So here we are, seven weeks into the season, and Maroney is currently the only one of those three players standing. Presumably, Morris will be back. Taylor seems in greater doubt.
The Patriots throw first and run second. Morris was the obvious back of choice in short-yardage situations before he got hurt, so it will be interesting to see how the Pats fare in that area while he is out. The last two weeks were such blowouts that it’s hard to remember many situations when they had to rely on their running game.
6. The role of third receiver remains unsettled. Sam Aiken had a pair of catches yesterday, including the 54-yard touchdown catch-and-run that gave the Pats a 21-0 advantage in the second quarter. Still, that play had as much to do with poor tackling as it did with Aiken, who nonetheless made a play when the opportunity arose.
So, in the wake of the Joey Galloway failure, who is going to be the guy here? Aiken? Brandon Tate? Terrence Nunn? If the Pats get into shootouts in coming weeks -- New Orleans and Indianapolis are coming up -- the presence of another outside threat could make all the difference.
7. The real season hasn’t even started yet. In the next five weeks, the Patriots will face, in order, the Dolphins (home), Colts (away), Jets (home), Saints (away), and Dolphins (away). Together, those are three competitive divisional opponents and two undefeated teams. The schedule gets softer again in the homestretch -- Carolina, Buffalo, Jacksonville, Houston -- making the next five games all the more important.
Entering this season, given Brady’s knee injury and the changes on defense, Belichick certainly knew his team would need time to jell. The Patriots basically have had a half-season to come together. Because the Denver defeat could hurt New England with regard to playoff seeding, the Indy game takes on additional importance. If the Pats slip up badly in the next five games, their Super Bowl chances will take a major hit.
And here, as well know, the Super Bowl is really all that matters.
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