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Patriots seeing progress in key problem areas

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The Patriots had one of their biggest offensive explosions of the last decade in a 54-13 romp over the New York Jets that gave New England their first home win of the season and brought their record to 3-4. While it's probably foolish to make too much of a lopsided win over a one-win team that mostly had their backup quarterback playing, the Pats continued to make important strides in areas where they had struggled through the initial weeks of the season.

Now, New England's task is to carry over the full-team performance and take it to Los Angeles, where next Sunday the Pats will take on the 4-2 Chargers, a team currently sitting in one of the AFC Wild Card spots and one that will present far more challenges than the Jets did.

Here are the most promising developments from the Patriots on both sides of the ball over the last few games and how the team can feed off of them so they can start knocking off some of the better teams in the league.

Offense finding their red zone finish

With a rookie quarterback and a host of new weapons, the Patriots' red zone offense was one of the team's biggest struggles through the first three weeks of the season, as they went just 2-for-8 inside the 20-yard-line when it came to getting touchdowns. On Sunday against the Jets, the offense exploded for a ridiculous 6-for-6 in the red zone, part of a continued progression that also saw the Patriots offense go 4-for-7 on that part of the field against the Texans and Cowboys.

Not only are the Patriots getting to the red zone more frequently than early in the season, they're finishing with more touchdowns while also staying balanced and not allowing the defense to key off of any particular player. In the first three games inside the red zone, Mac Jones was efficient (66.7 percent completion percentage, 107.2 QB rating with 1 touchdown) but in the last four not only has Mac improved (81.0 percent completion percentage, 126.7 QB rating with 6 touchdowns) but the running game has taken a major leap, producing six touchdowns and nearly doubling their yards-per-attempt.

Hunter Henry, who had zero red-zone catches through the first three games, now has three red-zone touchdowns in the last four games, as well as a fourth that came from just beyond the red zone. Damien Harris has gone from six carries for three yards through three weeks, to 11 carries for 37 yards and four touchdowns in the last four. Jones, Henry and Harris are not alone though, as Josh McDaniels has found a way to spread the ball around, even by having his wide receivers throw touchdown passes.

After spending the start of the season buried near the bottom of the league in red-zone offense, the Patriots are third-best in the league over the last few weeks. Those numbers are skewed by the dramatic performance against the Jets but the trend of improvement is undeniable. To compete with the high-powered offenses coming up on the schedule, continued execution and finish in the red zone is one of the most important factors.

Defense finding their clutch

The Patriots' defensive struggles have been tough to quantify this season because they've been generally solid but haven't been able to get some key plays in some key moments that might've swung the game into New England's direction. But over the last two weeks, the Patriots defense is starting to step up in some big spots. It began with two fourth-down stops last week against the Cowboys, with Ja'Whaun Bentley forcing a fourth-down fumble on the goal-line that was one of the signature stops of the season thus far.

Against the Jets, the Patriots got two fourth-down stops as well, including one before the half when the game was still close. Christian Barmore, who continues to see his role expand, was in on the stop just after the two-minute warning and the offense would take the ball and score a touchdown off the stop, extending the lead to 31-7. Without the stop, the score and the game would've unfolded differently.

There's still work to do for the defense, as their inability to get a final stop against the Dolphins in the fourth quarter or against the Cowboys in overtime were failures of complementary football that could not be overcome. While the defense is starting games well on the biggest downs, like the fourth-down stop on Dallas' opening possession or the perfect three-and-out the defense pitched to open the game against the Jets, they'll need more plays like the fourth-quarter stop against the Texans that opened the door for the game-winning field goal.

Still, the defense is showing signs of life in the clutch moments with playmakers new and old starting to step up.

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