Most pundits had the New England Patriots pegged for a 14-2 or 13-3 record. If the Patriots duplicate their first-half performance in the months of November and December, though, they'll finish 10-6.
The Patriots typically improve over the course of the season, but make no mistake, at 5-3, the Patriots are far more mortal than many had imagined.
The major question for the Patriots is what they need to do in order to prepare for the playoffs—barring a huge twist in their fortunes and more than one surprise team rising up the AFC ranks, New England should find itself in its rightful place, scheduled to play in the month of January.
Let's take a more in-depth look at the State of the Union for the Patriots, now at the halfway mark of the 2012 season, with an eye toward the future and how the Patriots can improve in time for the games that matter most.
Devin McCourty: McCourty lands in this spot for his seamless transition to the safety spot, which occurred in the Week 7 game against the New York Jets. Before that point, McCourty was one of few bright spots at cornerback, but injuries and ineffective play at safety yielded his return to the position.
The Patriots had planned for him to spend the entire 2012 season at safety, but those plans fell through when the Patriots realized what little they had to work with at cornerback. Needless to say, McCourty's versatility has been highly valuable for New England's defense, even amid the strife of giving up one big pass play after another.
Rob Gronkowski: A lot has been made about early struggles for Gronkowski. Interestingly enough, his statistical output is nearly the same after eight games this year as it was after eight games in 2011:
- Through eight games, 2011: 44 receptions, 596 yards (13.55 yards per reception), six touchdowns.
- Through eight games, 2012: 43 receptions, 580 yards (13.49 yards per reception), seven touchdowns.
Over the past two weeks, Gronkowski has 14 receptions, 224 yards and four touchdowns. Statistically, that is one of the best two-game stretches of his career (he had a nearly identical stat line of 11 receptions, 224 yards and four touchdowns vs. the Colts and Redskins last year).
Gronkowski may not keep up the pace he's had over the past two games, but even with a hip injury, there doesn't seem to be much that can stop Gronkowski from marching all over NFL defenses.
Brandon Lloyd: The Patriots brought Lloyd in to help take some of the attention away from the middle of the field, with his ability to win one-on-one matchups forcing defenses to allocate extra help to his side of the field. Thus far, that has not happened quite as New England had imagined.
He had two receptions and two touchdowns against the Rams this past week, but on the season, he's catching just 54.4 percent of throws in his direction and has dropped six passes according to ProFootballFocus.com.
Tavon Wilson: The safety who couldn't learn his lesson.
Wilson doesn't get all the blame for the big plays being given up through the air, and he's certainly more physically talented than anyone gives him credit for, but to be burned by the same exact route, making the same exact mistake on both occasions, it's impossible to leave him out of the stock down section.
The Patriots could put him in better position to succeed, but it looks like he still has a way to go before he fully grasps the concepts of the Patriots defense.
Finding Offensive Consistency?
In our last State of the Union just four weeks ago, we wondered whether the Patriots had finally found the "rhythm of life" on offense coming off a 52-28 drubbing of the Bills in which they scored 31 points in the fourth quarter.
Now, after three more weeks in which they went from life to lifeless on offense, they capped it off with a 45-point thrashing of the Rams defense. Now, we're once again left to wonder whether the Patriots have found their rhythm for real this time.
But a closer analysis of their scoring drives reveals this offense can be hot and cold not just over the course of the season, but even in the span of 60-minute football games.
The Patriots are the league's No. 1-ranked offense in points and yards, but those numbers are misleading. There have been long stretches where they have been incapable of moving the ball and scoring points, and some of those stretches have come in the fourth quarter and have resulted in losses.
They are among the league's best in overall drive efficiency, ranking in the top five in nearly every indicator in FootballOutsiders.com's drive stats, so they're doing something right. It would still seem, however, that their long stretches of dominance have overridden their puzzling stretches of unproductive offense.
The running game, although statistically one of the better attacks in the league, remains a question mark in their ability to run the ball when they have to—3rd-and-short, down near the goal line and when holding onto a late lead to pick up first downs and try and milk the clock.
With three games against some of the league's worst run defenses up ahead, the Patriots won't be tested in that regard until they face the Miami Dolphins for the first time all season in Week 13.
They still have four games against tough defenses—two contests against the Dolphins and home games against the 49ers and Texans—to prove themselves as a truly elite offense, capable of scoring consistently and at key moments in games.
The Patriots Defense: Double Miles You Can Actually Use
Flying Elvis doesn't fly high enough to stop opponents from frequent air travel against the Patriots defense.
Alec Baldwin would be proud, but it's caused quite a panic in New England; even late leads don't feel comfortable anymore, with the defense showing itself less than capable of preventing big plays regardless of when or where.
The Patriots were exposed by the Baltimore Ravens pretty badly in that regard and were still getting scorched at ridiculous rates for four weeks following that beatdown.
It's also worth mentioning, though, that they haven't faced more than two top-end offenses this year in the Ravens and the Broncos. Other than that, the damage has been done by also-ran quarterbacks like Ryan Fitzpatrick, Russell Wilson and Mark Sanchez, to name a few.
The Patriots finally slowed it down against the St. Louis Rams, but let's not forget to qualify that by pointing out that the Rams offense has been far from explosive all year, picking up just 20 total pass plays of 20 yards or more this season.
We've talked in the past about where the blame lies, and part of the problem is the safeties, but part of the problem is also the pass rush. They have gotten a consistent rush from rookie defensive end Chandler Jones and no one else. Even Rob Ninkovich, for all his big-play glory, hasn't consistently put pressure on the quarterback.
The interior rush has not been what New England had hoped. It has made some adjustments to try and fix that, including placing defensive end Jermaine Cunningham on the inside of the defensive line as well as running a "NASCAR" front featuring Cunningham and Justin Francis in the middle of the line.
We've seen in the past that a solid pass rushing front can make up for some deficiencies on the back end, and the Patriots seemed to address that by blitzing a bit more this past week than we've seen them blitz recently.
But somehow, some way, it has to stop. At least if New England's defense wants to improve by season's end.
Its penchant for giving up big pass plays through the air has resulted directly in it giving up points. Whether it can continue to prevent those big plays, as it did against the Rams, will bear a huge impact on the Patriots defense's ability to stop opponents from scoring going forward.
NOTE: NFL.com lists the Patriots with 42 pass plays of 20 or more yards allowed on defense, but a tabulation of numbers in the NFL.com official game books adds it up to 41. Pro-Football-Reference.com has it at 42 as well. The play in question is a 44-yard bomb from Peyton Manning to Demaryius Thomas, which was knocked free by Patriots cornerback Sterling Moore. I counted the play in my charting.
Three Steps to Second-Half Success
1. Limit the Big Pass Plays: See rant above.
2. Find an Offensive Identity: As an extension off the previous section about the offense, part of the problem is that they don't seem to know exactly what they want to do. The Patriots need to figure out whether they are capable of running the ball in running situations, not just when the defense dictates it so.
The game plan nature of the offense is a given, with Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels at the helm, but when long scoreless droughts threaten the ability to win football games, the Patriots need to be able to return to their bread and butter to get the job done. In the past, that has typically meant Brady reading a defense from the shotgun and getting the ball out quickly.
3. Watch Out for the Dolphins: The Dolphins are no joke. They are the surprise of the division, quite possibly the surprise of the conference, and it doesn't look like they're going anywhere anytime soon. The Patriots still have yet to face what is the second-best team in the division, and the way things have gone this season, those games could be the difference in the division crown and a wild card.
We left the Patriots on a high note in our previous State of the Union, coming off a 31-point fourth quarter after which it looked like they had finally hit stride.
This time, we once again find the Patriots coming off a huge win against the Rams, having once again squelched the media fire they had come under as recently as two weeks ago, and once again appear to have hit their stride.
It was an encouraging sign for Patriots fans to see that New England can still look like New England at times, but until we continue to see them look like New England for long stretches, there's no reason to think this team is impervious to a letdown.
On offense, they need to find and maintain consistency, and do so against good opponents and in situations where they need to the most.
On defense, they need to limit the big plays through the passing game by getting more pressure on the quarterback and playing more sound technique on the back end.
Overall, the Patriots have their problems like any team, but at 5-3 with some easy games coming up following the bye, their position couldn't be much better.
Erik Frenz is the AFC East lead blogger for Bleacher Report. Be sure to follow Erik on Twitter and "like" the AFC East blog on Facebook to keep up with all the updates. Unless specified otherwise, all quotes are obtained firsthand.
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