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Patriots keys to victory as the season progresses

The Patriots were strong out of the gates, kicking off the 2006 season with a 4-1 start before heading into this week's bye. Nobody in the locker room seems fully satisfied – they were 5-0 to start the 2004 season. However, this is the second-best five-game record they've posted sinceBill Belichick became the coach. Historically, The Pats have only started 5-0 twice, including the 1974 season. They've only started 4-1 in five other seasons. Despite the good start, the Patriots all seem to share a common attitude about the rest of the season: Don't look back and keep improving. Here are five things the Patriots need to do in order to keep gaining momentum into the postseason.

Get on the same page in the passing game

Led by the impeccable Tom Brady, who's protected by the best sack-stopping line in the business, this group has still struggled to perform at times. Not surprisingly, venerable veteran Troy Brown is as reliable as ever. He sits atop the passing charts with Benjamin Watson, and they've posted 15 and 16 receptions, respectively. Watson's amassed 211 yards and seems to be catching balls on a wider, more versatile range of routes. Doug Gabriel has stepped in nicely and seems to be building chemistry with Brady. In the first five games, the Patriots have only covered more ground through the air than their opponents once. That was in the 17-7 loss to the Broncos, who had the Pats running game corked tighter than that bottle of champagne you've been saving since your wedding. The performance showed that the passing game can be productive when they must, but the Patriots need to get to a point where they aren't relying so heavily on the running game so it can become the difference in more games. Belichick has said before that the ideal situation is to have a passing game that matches the running game. Two possible X-factors in the passing game are second round pick Jackson and newly acquired wideout Jabar Gaffney. Gaffney caught 55 balls last season for the less-than impressive Houston Texans, and said he's spending the bye week break at Gillette Stadium in order to ready himself for the Bills game. Jackson spoke to the media this week about his hamstring injury, and said he's at 90 percent physically. Obviously, neither of these guys has been much of a factor so far this season, but the potential is there. If just one of them can become productive in the next few weeks while the others continue to get comfortable, then the Pats passing game could become a lot more of a threat to opposing defenses.

Polish the running game

The Patriots passing game may not be the strongest it's been in recent history, but the offense ranks fifth in the NFL in rushing yards per game. The hot rod running duo of clock killin' Corey Dillon and top rookie running back Laurence Maroney has been impressive to say the least. The pair has amassed 613 yards and five touchdowns this season. Add Kevin Faulk, Heath Evans,Tom Brady and Chad Jackson into the calculations and you've got a group that's produced 695 total yards of rushing offense. They've dominated against defenses like the Bengals (236 net yards rushing) and usually rise to the occasion in big games. However, the Dolphins held them down last week and the Broncos effectively shut them down by limiting them to only 50 yards on the ground. The offensive line deserves as many props for the big games as the runners do, but both units need to work toward more consistent production. The Bills game following the bye will be a good test for the Pats offense, which produced 183 rushing yards against them in Week 1, but the Bears are only just around the bend after that game. Fast linebackers and strong linemen have hurt production, and everyone needs to keep stepping it up if they want to continue producing first downs and stringing together long drives.

Keep the defensive front seven healthy

Tedy Bruschi is back in the middle barking out adjustments after breaking his wrist early in the year. He recovered quickly and is no longer answering questions about the injury, which it seems he'd prefer to forget. He had a stroke a year ago and made a strong return before the season was over. There aren't a lot of young bucks in the linebacking corps, and Junior Seau has made a return from retirement or "vacation" as he likes to call it, which deserves respect. He's been in the league 17 years, however, and isn't invincible, though he looks it. Rosevelt Colvin had a devastating hip injury in 2003 that sat him out for the rest of the season. He's said he still feels it, though it doesn't hamper his speed – he's leading the team with 8 quarterback hurries. Look, these guys are good. Don't misunderstand. However, linebacker depth was a major concern during training camp and guys like Eric Alexander and Pierre Woods just haven't been on the field enough to alleviate concerns about it. The defense, as a whole, suffered when Richard Seymour missed a few games last season and injuries can be devastating, even to a front seven that's been as solid as the Patriots. Ty Warren is the defensive pacesetter with 38 total tackles and Jarvis Green has the second most sacks in the AFC (4.5). The group has 12 sacks among them this year. They've been great, but if that's to continue, they need to stay healthy.

Come out on top in big plays

They may be five weeks into the season, but the Patriots will return from the bye to start the turnover game with a clean slate. Their turnover differential is at an even zero right now. It started off about as ugly as it could when Buffalo linebacker Takeo Spikes strip-sacked Brady in the end zone to score on the Pats first offensive play of the year. The Bills stole another interception before the game was over, and the Pats didn't get points off a turnover until Week 4 against the Bengals. It was negative three going into the Miami game, but the Pats forced three turnovers that game to bring them to zero. Continuing to create turnovers will be key, because turnovers not only give the offense the ball, they usually provide good field position as well. They've also got 17 points off turnovers, though opponents have 31 points off takeaways. Two big pass plays hurt the Pats when the Jets came to town, though the secondary has done a better job of not letting opposing receivers get deeper than them. The Patriots longest pass play is a 35-yarder to Watson at Cincy, but Chad Jackson was one of the fastest receivers at the combine, and if he's feeling better after the break, he could really stretch the field more. Doug Gabriel also caught a season-long 25 yard touchdown at Cincinnati. Getting deep balls to turnover and drop correctly is something Brady worked on all offseason, so if the wideout speed is there, he'll be looking to showcase that more as the season progresses. If the Patriots want to keep improving, they'll have to perform well on big plays by recognizing opportunities and coming out on top.

Follow the leaders

Now in his seventh season as the Patriots head coach, Bill Belichick has been a coach in the NFL for 32 years. Among NFL head coaches, Belichick has the most NFL experience around. His winning percentage of .747 since 2001 is the best in the NFL. That .747 percentage includes his 10-1 record in the postseason since that time. There are seven head coaches in the NFL or college who were assistants under Belichick, and he's got a record of 59-5 when the Pats score 21 points or more in a game. To call Belichick well respected would be a serious understatement. He knows how to build, organize and lead teams. Plus, his teams always improve as the season progresses. The Patriots players need to follow him and listen to everything he says if they want to keep improving. Rodney Harrison always talks about the success many of the Patriots veterans have had. He should know – he's one of them. He's returned from last year's season-ending injury and has more career sacks than any other defensive back in NFL history. Troy Brown is perhaps the most versatile player active in the NFL. He's been with New England since entering the league – that's 14 years of Patriots experience. Tom Brady is the winningest quarterback of the Super Bowl era with a record of 62-21. He's 23-3 in games decided by six points or less. There are countless other veterans on the team from Larry Izzo and Don Davis on special teams to Junior Seau, who's been a serious presence in the NFL longer than anyone else on the team. These guys all know what it takes to win, and they all still have the drive to make it happen. If the young guys can rally around their leaders as the days grow colder and the games get tougher, they'll have a good chance of heating up and staying hot.

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