The Patriots have wrapped up an 8-1 start to the 2019 season and, after this week's bye, will embark on an attempt to make their ninth-straight AFC Championship game and fourth-straight Super Bowl appearance.
Yes the start to the season was dominant but it feels like we're just starting to truly get to know who these Patriots are. That's usually how it goes as injuries happen and the team continues the team-building process up until the trade deadline before slowly locking in on the players and schemes they can count on.
Now, with two returnees from Injured Reserve and the trade deadline passed, this is the team the Patriots will take toward the playoffs.
What do we know about them and their upcoming opponents, and what will they need to have a shot at repeating as Super Bowl champs, winning their fourth Super Bowl in six seasons? Here's the second half-(ish) preview!
The coaches and players will use this bye week to re-evaluate who they, what they've done and how they can best play to their strengths in the stretch run.
The good begins with the defense, who was on an historic pace to start the season before falling back to earth in a 37-20 loss to the Ravens last weekend. How good the defense is falls somewhere in between the sheer dominance of the first eight games and the 30 defensive points they gave up to the Ravens.
But the Ravens presented a unique challenge with a dynamic quarterback who not only ran on them but made some critical throws with the game hanging in the balance. Baltimore's multiple tight end sets and mix of speed and physicality kept the Patriots defense on their heels for much of the game, but few teams can reproduce that kind of attack and the defense should be better off having faced arguably the best version of the mobile quarterback bunch.
What's not in question is that the defense will match up perfectly with traditional pocket passing teams. That's because the true strength of this defense is their secondary, led by Defensive Player of the Year candidate Stephon Gilmore and a trio of versatile safeties who can play all over the field. Their depth at pass rusher is also a strength and should help keep a fresh stable of players as the games become more critical. But getting better performances from the defensive line and linebackers against offenses like the Ravens will be vital to a successful playoff run.
Offensively, there's still work to be done but there are reasons to believe things are trending in the right direction. By most statistical accounts, this has been an average offense that has benefited greatly from the defense's penchant for takeaways and stops. But in spurts against the Ravens we saw the offense find some footing, with new receiver Mohamed Sanu grabbing ten catches. Sanu could be the kind of mid-season addition that Deion Branch was in 2010, giving Tom Brady a complimentary piece to Julian Edelman that can get open quick and make plays after the catch.
The x-factors for the offense are Isaiah Wynn and N'Keal Harry. Wynn's athleticism will add a new dimension to the offense, but it will be vital for the rest of the offensive line to find their consistency. They've had too many up-and-down plays this year. As for Harry, he won't set the league on fire in the second half, but he offers a unique element of outside size to the receiving corps and could be a valuable red zone target.
They won't have a dominant run-blocking tight end or fullback this year, but the running game must find a way to get going and the improvement of the passing offense could help open things up in a "throw to score, run to win" kind of way. Forced lighter boxes from a more consistent aerial attack could help get Sony Michel on track for an end-of-year jump like last year. At the very least, Wynn's quick feet should help open up more screen game options for James White and Rex Burkhead.
The special teams have shown improvement in recent weeks and free agent signing Justin Bethel has provided a boost. But the key piece is at kicker where the team is on their third one of the season. It's now Nick Folk's job, adding an larger element of uncertainty that hasn't existed since 2010, the last time Stephen Gostkowski ended up on IR.
We know the Patriots always play their best football at the end of the year and 2019 should be no exception. The defense has started out from a better place than we're accustomed to while the offense has been more inconsistent than we're used to. Even if they just meet in the middle they'll be a tough out for whatever team they face.
November 17th - at Philadelphia Eagles - 4:25pm
DVOA Rank: 13th overall (17th offense, 10th defense)
The 5-4 Eagles have been streaky this year, alternating between two wins and two losses for the last eight weeks. If head coach Doug Pederson has his team playing the same kind of fearless gameplan they had for Super Bowl 52, the Eagles should give the Patriots everything they can handle. Carson Wentz has 15 touchdowns to four interceptions and he'll need to continue to play safe with the ball to avoid letting The Boogeymen dictate the game. Playing on the road in one of the most hostile environments in the NFL will be an excellent test for a Patriots team coming off the bye.
November 24th - vs. Dallas Cowboys - 4:25pm
DVOA Rank: 4th overall (1st offense, 17th defense)
Dak Prescott has the Cowboys offense playing the most efficient football in the league, with Ezekiel Elliot, Amari Cooper and Jason Witten doing most of the damage. The 5-4 Cowboys are most effective when Elliott rushes over 20 times and are coming off a disappointing loss to the Vikings on Sunday Night Football. They had been coming off two dominating wins over divisional rivals the Eagles and Giants with their defense forcing seven turnovers. The Cowboys have all the offensive pieces to challenge the Patriots defense, but remain sporadic.
December 1st - at Houston Texans - 8:20pm
DVOA Rank: 10th overall (11th offense, 14th defense)
Another team with a mobile quarterback, the 6-3 Texans are about to enter an AFC gauntlet after their bye week, facing the Ravens and Colts before hosting the Patriots. Carlos Hyde has had a resurgence, while DeAndre Hopkins is putting up another excellent year, but it's Deshaun Watson's five rushing touchdowns that might be the most concern to the Patriots. The Texans have never been able to knock off the Pats in the last decade and the young team will be looking to make a statement.
December 8th - vs. Kansas City Chiefs - 4:25pm
DVOA Rank: 3rd overall (2nd offense, 11th defense)
The game that everyone will be waiting for, Patrick Mahomes should be well past his knee injury, adding more juice to what is the most anticipated game of the season. Mahomes isn't the running threat Jackson is, but the pure speed of the Chiefs is a major concern for the Patriots. It seems like New England dedicated much of their offseason moves specifically to deal with Kansas City and they'll need great games from their entire defense for 60 minutes. The biggest question is whether or not the Patriots can find their ground game before this one, because the Chiefs have been susceptible on the ground with the 28th-ranked DVOA run defense. An effective running game would make a world of difference, keeping Mahomes off the field and shortening the game.
December 15th - at Cincinnati Bengals - 1pm
DVOA Rank: 30th overall (29th offense, 31st defense)
After a five-game gauntlet of contenders the Pats will get a reprieve against the Bengals, one of the worst teams in the league who should be already looking toward the offseason by mid-December.
December 21st/22nd - vs. Buffalo Bills - TBD (to be announced on Tuesday 11/12)
DVOA Rank: 25th overall (26th offense, 15th defense)
Is this the year one of the final two AFC East games finally means something? The Pats had an all-out war with the Bills in Week 4, holding on for a 16-10 win. The Bills will have some interesting games against the Cowboys and Ravens but have a favorable schedule that could leave them in the playoff hunt by the time they travel to New England, though a disappointing loss on Sunday to the Browns is certainly a setback. Beating the Patriots in New England is the key missing piece for all the AFC East teams looking to make a late-season statement in a meaningful game and Buffalo's defense has the pieces to challenge Tom Brady.
December 29th - vs. Miami Dolphins - 1pm
DVOA Rank: 32nd overall (31st offense, 32nd defense)
Once again the Patriots will close out their season against a Dolphins team that isn't going anywhere. By this time they'll be fully invested in the offseason, likely giving the Patriots an extra game to heal some bumps and bruises before the playoffs begin. Jarrett Stidham time? Only if the Pats have locked up a top playoff seed.
Of all the current AFC playoff spot holders, the Colts are the only team the Patriots don't have on their schedule. The chances of a slate of rematches to get to the Super Bowl are high, with the Ravens, Chiefs and Texans leading the way. The only question that remains is where the games will be played, as the Pats currently hold the top seed but just a one-game lead on the Ravens.
The Bills are one game behind in the loss column as well, leaving a slight chance that their easier schedule could mean Week 16 has significant playoff implications for both teams. The Chiefs, Texans and Colts are all two games behind New England, meaning that despite the Patriots lead, the AFC playoff seeding is still very much up in the air. A top-two seed and a bye are far from a lock at this point for the Patriots.
The Cowboys are the only current NFC contender that the Patriots are scheduled to face and arguably the worst matchup of the entire group. There would be plenty of hype for a Pats-49ers Super Bowl and the storylines almost write themselves -- Brady vs. Garoppolo, the two best defenses in the NFL, Brady vs. his favorite childhood team. Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees would also be intriguing opponents, but the best teams in the NFC are mostly traditional offenses and that would bode well for what New England's defense does best.
The Patriots have their work cut out for them in the second half of the season, facing some of the best teams in the league over the next month, including three teams they're in direct competition with in the AFC. They'll learn a lot about themselves on both sides of the ball as their weaknesses will be tested. Despite their 8-1 start, nothing is assured at this point and it's likely the next four games will define their season in large part.
There isn't yet the same kind of playoff road concerns that existed last year, but there's no question the Patriots are nearly impossible to beat at home. They'll likely get multiple cracks at Kansas City and Houston, and another chance at Lamar Jackson and the Ravens. It's just a question of where those rematches will be played and how much the Pats take from the first games.