The bye week neatly divided the Patriots' season into two distinct phases. The first 9 games turned out to be against mostly mediocre competition, with a few good teams mixed in. Five of those 9 games were against teams with a winning record. And 3 of those 5 were against teams that are now 5-5. So only 2 games against truly tough opponents.
Phase 2 starts tonight. This is the test phase. This is the time to prove something.
The first phase of the season was about survival. Without Rob Gronkowski, the offense started the season with one hand tied behind its back. Then Danny Amendola got hurt. Then the runningbacks got hurt. Then Tom Brady struggled with accuracy, possibly due to injury.
The first 9 games were about getting everyone healthy and getting the young receivers acclimated to the offense. And also, of course, to accumulate wins.
The Pats achieved their goals in Phase 1 of the season. They won 7 games and built a lead in the division. Gronk is healthy. The young WRs are playing better. Brady looked great against the Steelers in week 9.
Now the stakes are higher. The tests are more difficult. The Pats play back-to-back nationally televised games. One against the 6-3 Panthers, the next at home against the 9-1 Broncos.
The Panthers have the best scoring defense in the League, allowing 12.8 points per game.
The Broncos have the best scoring offense, putting up an absurd 39.8 points per game, 11 points more than the second best Saints at 28.8.
It's safe to say that both the Patriots offense and defense will be put to the test these next two games. The Pats can win these through balance. If Brady and the offense struggle against Carolina's defense, it's up to the Patriots' defense to shutdown Cam Newton and the Panthers. And next week against Denver, it will be up to Brady, Gronk, and the offense to put up points and eat up clock to make things easier for the Pats' defense.
The Patriots have failed in recent postseasons because they could only win one type of game one type of way. This year we've seen them win games with defense, with offense, by running the clock out in the 4th quarter, by coming back in the 4th quarter with big passes, by playing great defense in the 4th quarter. Three of their wins were by 3 points or less. Four were within a touchdown.
If the Patriots can do well against these two types of teams, we'll all feel much more confident about their chances in the playoffs. If they struggle... well, at least they'll have 5 more weeks to improve.