After five games the Patriots stand at 2-3, staying competitive in all of the contests while breaking in a host of new faces that have transformed the team. Often September can be a feeling-out period for the roster as the coaches look to find a winning formula that merges personnel and scheme, but as the leaves turn color and start to fall, it's time to lock in and prepare for a new-look stretch run that will last into mid-January.
With a new 17-game season, the Patriots' playoff hopes are still very much alive thanks to their second win last week and a competitive AFC that features eight teams that are either 3-2 or 2-3. But make no mistake, there are still some significant questions and problems facing New England that must be answered and solved if they're to make some real noise in the conference.
Here are the five burning questions facing the Pats after five games!
1. Can they eliminate bad football?
Key Stat: Nine giveaways (t-30th)
It's tempting to imagine what might've been if not for some of the Patriots' untimely turnovers. Could they have beaten Miami if Damien Harris does fumble as the Patriots were moving inside of the Dolphins' 10-yard-line on their final drive of the game? How much different would the Saints game have unfolded without the two impactful interceptions thrown by Mac Jones that both directly resulted in New Orleans touchdowns?
The simple and disturbing fact is that the Patriots are doing far too much damage to themselves with lax ball security and it's had a direct impact on at least two of their three losses. Add in that the defense hasn't provided a meaningful takeaway since the Week 2 win over the Jets and New England is losing the turnover battle in more ways than one.
While penalties were also part of the initial bad football equation, they've improved in recent weeks, picking up just 27 yards in penalties last week against the Texans.
One thing we've come to expect is that the Patriots won't beat themselves but they've been flirting with disaster through the first five weeks of the season. There's no quicker way to get things on track than to stop putting the ball on the ground or into the hands of the defenders. This is priority number one going forward.
2. Can the offense explode?
Key stats: Third-Down Conversions (43.3 percent, 9th), Red Zone Offense (37.5 percent, 31st), Points (19.2 points-per-game, 26th)
With a rookie quarterback under center and four additions at wide receiver and tight end that have instantly stepped right into the offense, there's a lot to feel good about when it comes to the offense's trajectory. A large chunk of the offense's personnel should be in place for the next few years and while it hasn't been a well-oiled machine out of the gate, the potential is there and they're just scratching the surface of what they can do.
Mac Jones is completing 71 percent of his passes and has shown excellent poise at the end of games, keeping his team close and giving them a chance to win two of the three losses right at the end. However, it isn't all rosy as the offense continues to lack finish in the red zone and the kinds of explosive scoring plays that are a key feature needed to keep up with today's NFL.
Some of this is to be expected with the young signal-caller and new pieces around him, but finding ways to more consistently put the ball into the endzone for six points, instead of settling for field goals is a must to pull out wins over the tough competition coming up and compete for a playoff spot.
3. Can the defense step up and stay up?
Key stats: Points (18.4 points-per-game, 5th), Third-Down Conversions (42.9 percent, 20th)
Overall, the 2021 Patriots defense has been solid, especially when it comes to how many points they're letting up, but their problems have been more specific and situational. Against Miami, they lacked the clutch play to get a final stop to give their offense one last chance. Against New Orleans, they couldn't get a stop after the Patriots closed the gap to a one-score game in the fourth quarter. Against Houston, it was third down that was the problem in the first half before they turned it around and kept the door open for a comeback.
In spurts, and certainly against Tampa Bay, they've shown some intriguing potential but it hasn't been consistent enough to truly make this a game-changing unit that can be counted on. With a schedule loaded with potent offenses, the Patriots defense has some significant challenges lined up, starting this weekend against the Dallas Cowboys.
There are still plenty of intriguing questions around this unit. How will Jamie Collins factor in? Can Matthew Judon keep up his torrid pace? Is there enough depth at cornerback, especially if Jalen Mills continues to miss time? This should be an ascending unit but they need to start stringing together 60-minute performances and making more big plays in the big moments.
4. Can the depth do it?
Key injuries: Jalen Mills (hamstring), Isaiah Wynn (COVID-19/RESERVE), Michael Onwenu (COVID-19/RESERVE), Trent Brown (Injured Reserve), Shaq Mason (abdomen), James White (Injured Reserve)
Like all football teams, the 2021 Patriots' fate will be largely impacted by the unpredictable injury bug that has already posed its challenges through five games. The biggest of which was losing James White, a team leader and a uniquely experienced and skilled running back who was a third-down nightmare for defenses. There's no easy replacement for White and early-season ball security and pass protection issues have hurt the younger running backs trying to break through.
The sheer volume of offensive line injuries was overwhelming last weekend, but a makeshift line did a great job holding Houston to just one sack. When will Wynn and Onwenu be available? Who will replace Trent Brown for at least two more games? How serious is Shaq Mason's abdomen injury? They got by last week against one of the worst teams in the league, but with the likes of Joey Bosa and Myles Garrett among others coming down the pike, getting and keeping their offensive line healthy is a huge key for the Pats.
On the defensive side of the ball, it's cornerback that's the concern, with Jalen Mills missing last weekend's contest and rookie Shaun Wade out with a concussion. There just isn't much depth and that's concerning for a team that loves to match up with offenses. As soon as Mills exits the equation things get dicey.
Running back and cornerback could top the needs before the trade deadline if they can't get healthy or find suitable answers already on the roster.
5. Can Folk stay clutch?
Key stats: Week 5 Special Teams Player of the Week, 36 field goals in a row
It's impossible to understate how much Nick Folk has meant to the Patriots over the last two-and-a-half seasons, as he just posted his first Special Teams Player of the Week award of 2021 after snagging two of them last season. But overall, the Patriots have had to rely on Folk more than they should as the offense looks to find their red zone finish and if they can start finishing drives with more touchdowns, the pressure on Folk should relax a bit.
Just last week against the Texans they needed two tough 50-plus field goals to stay in the game. That's asking a lot of the 37-year-old veteran. Lucky for the Patriots he continues to deliver.
But should the offense continue through their fits and starts, Folk will likely be called on many more times to make clutch kicks to keep New England in games. All of the burning questions are connected, and Folk is the failsafe if the previous four don't get in gear. But that's a risky way to live.