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Bye-bye, bye week

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff  November 2, 2009 12:40 PM

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Christopher L. Gasper
The Patriots have a lot to feel good about after enjoying their bye week and returning to work today.

At 5-2, they sit atop the AFC East and are in the driver's seat for the division title with home games against both Miami (this Sunday) and the Jets (Nov. 22) on tap this month. There are no more questions about Tom Brady's health. The Crown Jewel QB is completing 65.6 percent of his passes and has 15 touchdowns and four interceptions. Any misgivings about the offense's ability to generate the big play vanished in blowouts wins over the Tennessee Titans and Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the two weeks leading up to the break, games in which the Patriots racked up 94 points and 1,033 yards of total offense.

All is well at Patriot Place and Patriots coach Bill Belichick has an ear-to-ear grin on his face.

Well, maybe not that last part.

"Not when Bill is the coach," said linebacker Adalius Thomas. "He definitely serves that pie humble and hot. So, I think that you know just going back and improving on the things that we need to work on and continue to do well on the things we did well on, that's the only way you can really do it because in November and December that's how things really go. The teams that really improve during those times win."

With nine games to go and a season-defining five-game stretch (Miami, at Indianapolis, the Jets, at New Orleans, at Miami) commencing this Sunday, the Patriots still have room for improvement and things to prove.

Here are five questions about the Patriots entering the second half of the season:

1. When the weather turns cold, can the Patriots turn on the running game?
The New England ground game, which ranks 14th in the NFL at 115 yards per game, has run hot and cold this season. In seven games, the Patriots have topped 100 yards rushing three times and averaged fewer than 4 yards per carry on four occasions, including their 35-7 victory over the hapless Buccaneers in London. Take away Laurence Maroney's 45-yard touchdown romp in the snow against Tennessee and the longest rush of the season would belong to backup quarterback Brian Hoyer, who had a 20-yard scramble against Tampa.

Although the blocking hasn't always been there, the real question mark here is Maroney. With Fred Taylor out for the foreseeable future after ankle surgery and Sammy Morris nursing a knee injury, can Maroney put together a stretch like he did in 2007, when in a five-game span between the end of the season and the AFC title game he had four 100-yard efforts? If he can, then concerns about both the ground game and his game will be gone.

2. Will anybody catch on as a third wide receiver to complement Wes Welker and Randy Moss?
Welker (46 receptions) and Moss (43 receptions) have combined for 47.3 percent of the Patriots' receptions this season. If the Patriots hope to keep up with the high-powered offenses of the Colts and Saints they'll need more than Welker and Moss at receiver. Joey Galloway was a disaster and the team finally asked him to a run a route he was comfortable with -- the go route. Rookie Julian Edelman is out with a broken forearm.

The team's hopes for a consistent third receiving option outside now rest with rookie Brandon Tate and special teams captain Sam Aiken.

The team has high hopes for Tate, who returned to the field against Tampa Bay after coming back from a torn anterior cruciate ligament he suffered last October while starring at the University of North Carolina. Tate has the speed to stretch defenses and the running ability to be dangerous after the catch, but you could have said the same about Chad Jackson. Aiken has always been a better receiver than he has been given credit for. His 54-yard TD against the Bucs was the Patriots' longest play from scrimmage this season and illustrated why a non-Welker/Moss option is important to the offense.

3. Can the Patriots generate a more potent pass rush?
While the New England secondary is much improved from last season's porous performance, the pass rush has remained tepid. The Patriots rank 26th in the NFL in sacks with 13. Tully Banta-Cain (three sacks) and defensive lineman Mike Wright (four sacks) have been the only consistent threats.

Defensive end/outside linebacker Derrick Burgess has been about as effective as Burgess Meredith. He has two sacks, one in the first game and one on fourth down of Tampa Bay's final possession with the Patriots up 35-7 lead.

You can get away with blitzing Josh Johnson and Josh Freeman, but do that to Indianapolis's Peyton Manning or the Saints' Drew Brees and those teams will be rushing past you to the end zone. New England has to find a way to get more out of the pass rush without blitzing, or the lack of a pass rush will catch up to them against elite QBs.

4. Are the Patriots capable of being road warriors?
The reality for the Patriots is that in order to have any shot at a home-field advantage in the AFC playoffs they're going to have to score some wins on the road in North America against quality opponents. The Patriots' only road win of the season has a double-asterisk. First, it wasn't a true road game as it was played in London at Wembley Stadium and second, it came against the Buccaneers, who look headed for 0-16.

After hosting the Dolphins this week, the Patriots play three of the next four on the road, traveling to Indianapolis, New Orleans and Miami, all night games. The trip to Miami comes on a short week because the Patriots will be coming off a Monday nighter in New Orleans.

Both of the Patriots' losses this season (Jets, Denver) came on the road. In both games they were shut out after halftime and registered their lowest point totals of the season, nine and 17, respectively. That type of scoring won't get it done against Indy or the Saints and probably won't be enough to down the Dolphins either. The other remaining road games are at Buffalo and the season-finale against Houston, which looks like a playoff contender.

5. Will Adalius Thomas be a bigger factor in the second half ?
Whether it was a message being sent or simply a football decision, Belichick's call to sit out a healthy Thomas against the Titans was probably the most earth-shaking development of the first half for the Patriots. It would behoove both sides moving forward for Thomas to be a bigger factor. He is 14th on the team in tackles with 13 and has just one sack. The defense needs more impact playmakers than just linebacker Jerod Mayo and safety Brandon Meriweather and with the addition of Junior Seau it might be time for the Patriots to turn Thomas loose as more of a pass rusher. Neither side has anything more to lose.

News, analysis and commentary from Boston.com's staff writers and contributors, including Zuri Berry and Erik Frenz.

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