During the first half of the season the Patriots defense led the way. The group allowed less than 24 points in six of the nine games New England played before the bye. Aqib Talib was the biggest reason for that success, and was arguably the team's MVP before injuring his hip against New Orleans.
Conversely, the offense struggled for many of those games. Tom Brady wasn't his usual surgeon-like self as he adjusted to life with a new cast of characters to throw to. He showed signs of breaking out in the final game, however, when he and the offense pasted Pittsburgh to the tune of 55 points. Not coincidentally, that game featured a healthy Rob Gronkowski.
Through it all the Patriots managed to go 7-2 before the bye and are in position to be heard from in the postseason once again. In order for the team to get back to the Super Bowl it will need to get quality performances from its key players. Talib, Brady, Gronkowski, Devin McCourty ... the list goes on and on.
So this week's Samsonite Make Your Case question asks: Whose performance is most critical to the Patriots success down the stretch?
PFW's Andy Hart says ...
Even though he missed the final three games prior to the bye with a hip injury, it's pretty easy to argue that Aqib Talib was the Patriots MVP through the first half of the season. On a weekly basis he matched up with and shut down opponents' top targets such as Vincent Jackson, Julio Jones, A.J. Green and Jimmy Graham. He not only kept them from making plays, he made plays of his own to the tune of a team-high four interceptions.
New England needs that type of performance in the second half and into January if this Patriots team is going to be as good as it can be and have championship aspirations. We saw Talib's importance last year against the Ravens when he left the AFC title game with an injury and Anquan Boldin took full advantage to lift Baltimore to the Super Bowl.
Obviously Tom Brady is always key to the success of the Patriots, but Talib is the difference maker that could push this team to what recent others have not been to accomplish – a Super Bowl title. --AH
PFW's Paul Perillo says ...
The first and only time during the first nine games that I felt I was watching a team capable of playing deep into January was during the Week 9 win over Pittsburgh. That's because it was really the only time the offense displayed any consistent production and a passing game that was capable of making big plays.
It should come as no surprise then, that I feel Rob Gronkowski is the most vital member of the team. When he's healthy he simply cannot be stopped, and against Pittsburgh he opened up all kinds of space for other members of the offense. And when Tom Brady has options, he'll find them. When Brady did not have Gronk, though, the offense stagnated.
Obviously having a healthy Aqib Talib would help, and some defensive improvement from years past would too. But not enough blame for the recent playoff failures has landed on the offense, and if Gronkowski is healthy the Patriots will have the ability to put up enough points to win. Without him, they're cooked.
Now it's the fans turn to cast their vote on this week's Samsonite Make Your Case poll.