The Patriots late bye week arrives this weekend and for a team in the midst of a seven-game win streak and sitting atop the conference and division standings, it's a perfect time for them to regroup and refocus on the final four games of the season and playoff games that are all but certain to follow.
It's been an incredible season thus far in New England after a fresh dose of free agents and rookies quickly remade the team from the 7-9 squad that missed the playoffs last season. Now, at 9-4, the Patriots' fate rests in their own hands. Win out and they'll get the only bye week in the AFC, but lose just a single game and things quickly become complicated.
Here are the burning questions that will define the final push of the 2021 season!
Can they get the AFC playoff bye?
If they win out, the AFC bye is theirs, but it won't be easy as they face three competitive conference foes who are all in their own fights just to make the playoffs.
Things will get interesting immediately after the bye week when the Patriots travel to Indy to take on the 7-6 Colts who currently boast the best running game in the league, led by Jonathan Taylor and his 1,348 rushing yards and 16 rushing touchdowns. The Colts will be followed by a rematch with the Bills in a game that should bear little resemblance to last week's matchup unless there's a New England storm on tap.
A slight one-week reprieve at home against the two-win Jags will be followed by a season-ending contest against the surging Dolphins in Miami, who could very well be playing for a playoff spot if their hot streak continues.
With three other AFC division leaders owning just four losses, the Patriots' margin for error is minimal when it comes to the top seed in the conference. One loss could easily open the door for the Titans, who have the easiest remaining schedule of the group, or the red-hot Chiefs to take over the number one spot.
If the Patriots can lock up the top seed by winning all four of their games, giving them 11-straight since mid-October, they will certainly deserve the week off that comes with it.
Can they win the AFC East?
A single loss wouldn't doom the Patriots' chances to win the AFC East, unless it comes to Buffalo because the Bills still have a path to the division title if they win all of their remaining games, including a tough contest this weekend against the Bucs.
If the Bills drop that one to Tampa and the Patriots knock off the Colts next weekend, the Pats-Bills rematch will be a hat and tee-shirt game for New England. In that scenario even a Bills win over the Pats would still give New England a chance for the division if they win their last two.
The odds are good for the Patriots to win the AFC East, with FiveThirtyEight.com projecting a 76 percent chance at securing the title, but they'll have to earn it by winning at least three of their last four. Lose two and the Bills could retake the division lead.
Can they get and stay healthy?
For the most part, the Patriots have had good injury luck this season, despite losing key vets James White and Jonathan Jones, neither of whom are expected to return this season. They've welcomed back a handful of players who made trips to the Injured Reserve list, including N'Keal Harry, Trent Brown and Jamie Collins. Harvey Langi returned to practice last week and could provide a boost to the special teams and linebacker depth, while Josh Uche could be a candidate to return next week to give the pass rush a boost as they head down the final stretch.
Kyle Dugger's return from the Reserve/COVID-19 list will be much anticipated following the bye as well.
The bigger questions at the moment though are from apparent injuries suffered against the Bills, with Damien Harris departing the game with a hamstring injury and Adrian Phillips going down on the second-to-last play of the game. Their importance to the team cannot be overstated as Phillips is a key defensive player who was making plenty of plays against Buffalo, while Harris gave the Patriots their only touchdown of the game. Both are vital to the identity of the 2021 Pats.
Team health is impossible to predict, and while there are some concerns coming out of the most recent game, the Patriots are in pretty good shape with four games to go in the regular season. If they can survive those without any more major hits, they will be among the few lucky teams to stay relatively healthy this year.
Can the offense find their red zone finish?
There's plenty to like about the Patriots offense, as they've found a way to put up enough points over the last seven games to keep the wins coming, but if there's one area to focus on improving it's in the red zone, where they rank 26th in the NFL. Aside from solid red zone performances against the Jets (6-of-6), Carolina (2-of-3) and Cleveland (5-of-6), the Patriots offense has been well under 50 percent in their four other games during the win streak.
Overall, they've been at 33 percent or under in six games this season.
"I think scoring is important and then getting up to that 70% mark, where the really good teams are at in the red-zone, around 74% or whatever," said Mac Jones of the team's red-zone struggles earlier this week. "That's where we want to be."
Against the best teams in the AFC, especially those capable of consistently breaking 30 points, the Patriots offense must be better about finishing drives with seven instead of three in the playoffs.
Can the defense keep their clutch?
The defense has earned plenty of praise during the team's win streak, as they've been getting takeaways in bunches and are now stepping up in the big moments and delivering key stops. Other than a couple situational letdowns, the Pats D has been lights out for most of the season and has given their team a chance to win every game they've played. There's every reason to think that can continue no matter who they face, but their final four games will provide a variety of challenges that will test them.
The run defense still has their toughest tests ahead and it starts immediately after the bye with Taylor and the Colts. While the Patriots run defense has been much improved over 2020, they escaped facing Derrick Henry and Nick Chubb over the win streak but they'll get a full dose of Taylor and the Colts excellent offensive line. James Robinson of the Jags is no slouch either, with seven touchdowns and averaging close to five yards-per-carry.
They can also expect the rematch with the Bills to be a far different game unless the weather plays an overwhelming role again. Monday night's wind largely handicapped the Bills' potent passing attack, an element that should test the depth in the Patriots secondary the second time around. And while the Dolphins don't have the same downfield passing attack that the Bills have, Tua Tagovailoa has been tearing teams apart with their RPO packages and underneath passing attack that comes with it. Both passing offenses will provide unique challenges.
Each of the final four opponents will have ways to stress the Patriots defense, as will any team they face in the playoffs. If they keep winning the line of scrimmage and producing takeaways, while saving their biggest plays for the biggest moments, the defense is capable of leading New England on a deep playoff run.
But there's still a bit more to learn about them before the playoffs arrive.