Every year, the goal for the New England Patriots remains the same: win a championship.
Sounds like a simple concept, right? Just take hold of the AFC East, push for a first-round postseason bye, run the table, and punch a ticket to the Super Bowl.
Yet to no surprise, that simple premise is much more complex than it sounds. After all, head coach Bill Belichick has seen his Patriots lose three of the first seven contests.
New England had the looks of a team that could go 13-3, 14-2, or even 15-1. But now, the landscape has changed. The parity across the league has closed the gap between the elite and the flailing franchises.
Case in point, the Patriots were in a four-way divisional tie for first place through Oct. 14. Yet after the team's Week 7 win against the New York Jets, the Patriots have a half-game lead over the rest of the AFC East, which combined for a 20-28 record last season.
All the Patriots can do is move on to the next one, because right now, it's a nine-game season. Although, some spike strips will have to be avoided along the way.
Obstacle No. 1: The Houston Texans on Dec. 10
Come Week 14, the Patriots will be hosting the Houston Texans at Gillette Stadium on Monday Night Football.
The Texans are the only one-loss team left in the AFC. They are backed by a top-notch rushing attack of Arian Foster and Ben Tate, who have pieced together over 130 yards per game this season.
Facing critical battles on both defense and offense, this slate will be a true test for the Patriots. It's vital for New England to hang with Houston, since the two teams may meet again down the road.
Obstacle No. 2: The San Francisco 49ers on Dec. 16
New England will have to keep their seat belts buckled, because just one week after encountering the Texans, the San Francisco 49ers will be coming to town.
The 49ers may not be in the AFC, but they are a strong candidate to clinch a Super Bowl berth. And if the Patriots are going to get to New Orleans, they must be ready for the toast of the NFC.
Much like Houston, the Niners have a prolific ground game. Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter provide quarterback Alex Smith with some threats out of the backfield. Together, Gore and Hunter have notched over 900 yards in 2012. If that appears frightening, just wait until earth-mover Brandon Jacobs and rookie speedster LaMichael James are fully healthy.
While the 49ers have volatility on offense, San Francisco's true firepower is on defense. The 49ers have allowed just over 16 points per game this year and are first in yards allowed. In fact, the 49ers have given up less total yards than the Patriots have let up in passing yards alone.
This could be a matchup of Super Bowl implications.
Obstacle No. 3: The Baltimore Ravens
The Patriots are not scheduled to face the Baltimore Ravens again this season. However, a playoff bout cannot be ruled out.
When the Patriots face off against Baltimore, it's the prototypical story line of a great offense versus a great defense. Yes, the Ravens have lost linebacker Ray Lewis and cornerback Lardarius Webb due to injury, but things are always close when these conference foes face off.
The last two tilts have been decided by a total of four points.
Obstacle No. 4: The New York Giants
This one goes without saying. The New York Giants are New England's kryptonite.
The Patriots have fell short to the Giants during their last two Super Bowl appearances largely due to Eli Manning's heroics, defensive collapses and possession woes.
If the Patriots meet the G-Men again this campaign, it would have to be in the Super Bowl. It's too soon to tell if the third time would be the charm.
Obstacle No. 5: Themselves
Beating the teams you're supposed to beat is, again, much easier said than done.
If New England always converted against so-called "inferior" opponents, the division would be in the bag by now. But that's why they play the games.
The Patriots' secondary has been branded the scapegoat. And after getting burned for the most passes over 20 yards in the NFL, it's tough to argue otherwise.
Yet the offense has to do a better job closing out games as well. Holding leads is something this Patriots regime has struggled with over the seasons, dating back to the 2006 AFC Championship game against the Indianapolis Colts where a 21-6 halftime lead turned into a 34-38 defeat.
This season has been no different; just ask the Ravens and Seahawks how they were able to pull off comebacks against New England.
The Patriots have beaten themselves. Now it's time to beat other teams.
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