4. Next man up stepping up
The secondary isn’t the only area that the Patriots have battled injuries this season. Some of the Patriots’ biggest stars have been out on both sides of the ball, but over the past five games, the Patriots have shown a tremendous ability to bring players off of the bench and have them contribute.
This has been especially evident on the offensive line, as the tremendous work of offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia is showing once again.
Logan Mankins, arguably the league’s best left guard, has missed four of the last five games. In his place, Donald Thomas has emerged as a very solid starting-caliber guard in his own right. In the one game Mankins did play, Thomas had to fill in at right guard, where Nick McDonald has also been a serviceable fill-in when Dan Connolly has been out. Marcus Cannon also filled in seamlessly for star right tackle Sebastian Vollmer on Thursday against the Jets.
The Patriots have also had to deal with key injuries at the tight end position. Aaron Hernandez missed three straight games as he continued to deal with a sprained ankle from Week 2, and when Hernandez finally returned on Thursday, it was with Rob Gronkowski now likely out for the rest of the regular season with a broken forearm.
Even with three other tight ends on the roster, the Patriots haven’t found another productive receiver at the position. They have been able to make up for their tight end absences, however, with other offensive playmakers like Edelman and Vereen stepping up to make big plays in increased offensive roles, while wide receivers Welker and Ridley have continued to be reliable sources of offense.
The Patriots have also had to play without standout rookie defensive end Chandler Jones for their last seven quarters of football, but have surprisingly had two of their best games of pass-rushing without Jones. A big reason for this has been the impressive play of Jermaine Cunningham filling in for Jones in the starting lineup. The Patriots have also gotten improved play from star defensive linemen Vince Wilfork and Ninkovich, and from rotational contributors in Brandon Deaderick and Trevor Scott.
A team has to have a lot more than 22 quality starters to contend for a championship. Players who have had to step into key roles for the Patriots have succeeded, showing that the Patriots do have the depth of talent to contend for a Super Bowl title.
5. Weak schedule
While we can go on and on about all the Patriots have done right over the past five games, there is an unavoidable fact: their dominance has come against weak competition. Of the four teams they have played in their past five games, only the Colts (6-4) have a winning record as of Sunday morning, with the other three teams all having less than four wins and at least six losses.
The Patriots’ schedule set up well from the beginning for them to go on a midseason roll like they have, after playing three teams with winning records in their first six games (Baltimore Ravens, Denver Broncos, Seattle Seahawks).
The Patriots certainly seem to have improved since their first six games of the season, but blowing out teams with losing records proves little.
Whether the Patriots have truly improved over the course of their win streak will receive its real test on Dec. 10 and Dec. 16.
Barring a collapse, the Patriots should be able to win their sixth straight game against Miami (4-6) next Sunday, but after that, they will play the Houston Texans and San Francisco 49ers, arguably the NFL’s two best teams, in back-to-back weeks.
If the Patriots can beat the Texans and win or at least hold their own against the 49ers, then a strong case can certainly be made for the Patriots now being the AFC’s best team. For now, however, no such assumption should be made considering that their impressive wins have come largely against weak competition.
That said, if the Patriots continue to dominate offensively, lead the league in takeaways and giveaways, hold up in the secondary and fill in effectively for injured players, they are going to be tough for any team in either conference to beat.