3. Will Logan Mankins return to his All-Pro form?
While the bye week might slow the momentum that the Patriots attained in their win over the Rams, it is actually hitting the team at a very good time. The halfway point of the season is the perfect time for a week off, and it gives the team another week to get some of their key players healthy.
One of those key players is left guard Logan Mankins, who made an astounding recovery from post-Super Bowl ACL surgery to play in the season opener, but has clearly been affected by the injury’s after-effects this season. Mankins has missed three games this season while dealing with lower-body injuries, and even when he has been on the field, he hasn’t looked like the same player he usually is.
Fortunately for the Patriots, his fill-in hasn’t looked like a replacement at all. Donald Thomas has done an admirable job filling in for him at left guard, and his play has not set them back at all.
A healthy Mankins, however, is still crucial to the team’s stretch run. When he is healthy, he is arguably the best guard in the National Football League, and he adds a serious presence to the team’s power running offense.
Considering that Mankins played in last year’s Super Bowl with that torn ACL, the Patriots can count on him playing through injuries if needed. What they really need, however, is for Mankins to be Mankins again. If only playing at a fractional level of his usual dominance, he does not give them much that Thomas cannot provide in his place.
4. What happens if a starting linebacker goes down?
The secondary is not the only area on the defense where depth is an issue. The Patriots have a talented starting trio of linebackers, but the lack of depth behind them is scary.
Outside linebacker Jerod Mayo is the well-rounded leader of the defense, while middle linebacker Brandon Spikes has been playing the best football of his career aside from a couple of bad games early in the season. The other starting outside linebacker, Dont’a Hightower, has been effective as a run-stopper and pass-rusher in a promising start to his rookie season, but when he missed two games with a hamstring injury, the team’s linebacker depth was really tested.
The Patriots have four additional linebackers on the roster — Tracy White, Jeff Tarpinian, Bobby Carpenter and Niko Koutouvides — but while all are key contributors on special teams, none of them are caliber of being regulars in the Patriots’ defensive lineup.
To compensate for this lack of depth, the Patriots have moved defensive end Rob Ninkovich back to outside linebacker for the past three games, and he has played well. This appears to be their contingency plan going forward in case of an injury.
Moving Ninkovich off of the defensive line is less than ideal, considering that it weakens the Patriots at defensive end aside from Chandler Jones, but the team does not have enough trust in any of the other players to give them significant playing time on defense.
5. How far will the Patriots go this season?
All things considered, the answer to this question is the only one that truly matters. If the Patriots win the Super Bowl, any shortcomings that the team has will be overlooked, and if the season ends disappointingly early, their achievements will be overshadowed.
Even with some of the team’s early struggles, the Patriots remain in great position to earn a top-two seed in the AFC, and with that a first-round playoff bye. Only two teams in the conference have two or less losses, and one of those teams, the Ravens, are likely to lose some games down the stretch as a result of a number of crucial injuries, including inside linebacker Ray Lewis and cornerback Lardarius Webb being lost for the season.
Half of the team’s remaining games are against considerably weaker opponents with losing records (although playing the Jets on the road could be a challenge if it is similar to the first contest), and if the Patriots can win two games against the Miami Dolphins, they should coast to a division title. The team that truly stands in the way of the Patriots’ championship aspirations this season, however, is the Houston Texans.
The Houston Texans lead the AFC with a 6-1 record, and are coming off of a 43-13 embarrassment of the Ravens. The Patriots play the Texans in Gillette Stadium on Dec. 10, and if they are going to get back to the Super Bowl, they will likely to have to get through the Texans again in the postseason.
The Texans have clearly been the class of the AFC in the first half of the season, but that Dec. 10 matchup will be a huge opportunity for the Patriots, for they still have a fighting chance at earning postseason home-field advantage if they can get a home victory over Houston. But if the Patriots have to go through the Texans in Reliant Stadium in the divisional round or the AFC Championship in the postseason, that could very well be the game that keeps them from getting to a second consecutive Super Bowl.
If the Patriots can win the AFC, they can win it all, but it won’t be easy. The NFC is loaded with strong teams, and the Patriots’ biggest threat could come from the San Francisco 49ers, who are off to a 6-2 start behind an elite defense, and will also travel to Gillette Stadium to play the Patriots on Dec. 16.
We can’t know the answers to all of these questions yet, but the first half of the season has certainly been a wild ride for Patriots fans. The second half should not be any less interesting.