The New England Patriots rolled into the bye week after their best offensive game of the season.
Impressive, yes, but consider the opposition.
In fact, consider the opposition all season — hardly the toughest in the NFL.
The 55-31 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers last Sunday was just the latest on a soft schedule for New England. The Patriots (7-2) have played only two games against teams that had winning records going into their matchups.
Even the bye works in their favor. The Patriots can get a head start on their next two opponents, the only ones left with winning records, the Carolina Panthers (5-3) and Denver Broncos (7-1). The rest of the schedule — Houston, Cleveland, Miami, Baltimore and Buffalo — figures to provide the Patriots some momentum heading into the playoffs.
"You're not going to win anything with seven wins. You need more than that," coach Bill Belichick said. "So we have a lot of football left. There are a lot of things we can improve in."
The bye gives quarterback Tom Brady and rookie receivers Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins extra time to work together. Star cornerback Aqib Talib will have more time to heal after missing the last three games with a hip injury. The defensive linemen playing bigger-than-expected roles after season-ending injuries to tackles Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly can rest and work on their teamwork.
On offense, running back Shane Vereen might play against Carolina when he's eligible to come off the injured reserve list. The passing game is more stable now with tight end Rob Gronkowski playing the last three games after missing the first six and wide receiver Danny Amendola back from a concussion and groin injury that sidelined him four games. The line is adjusting to the loss of starting right tackle Sebastian Vollmer for the year with a leg injury.
The Patriots lead the typically weak AFC East by two games.
"This is when real football starts, in November, where you make that push," left guard Logan Mankins said. "This is where we want to start playing good."
The Patriots are 23-3 after October in the past three regular seasons, 70-17 in the past 10.
They started this November by scoring 55 points, tying for the fifth most in a game in franchise history. Brady threw for 432 yards, third most in his career, and a season-high four touchdowns against Pittsburgh. The offense piled up 610 yards, third most in franchise history. And Stevan Ridley ran for 115 yards and two scores.
"We've shown flashes of what we can do and how good we can be, but that doesn't say anything for the upcoming weeks," Ridley said. "It was definitely a step in the right direction."
It certainly was for Brady. The three-time Super Bowl champion and two-time NFL MVP was having his worst statistical season as a starter, excluding 2008 when he suffered a season-ending knee injury in the opener.
He picked apart Pittsburgh's defense for completions of 81 and 57 yards and two for 34.
But Carolina has the second stingiest defense in the NFL.
"It's a week-to-week league," Brady said. "You could score three points one week and you could score 50 points the next week. Who knows? It depends on the matchup. It depends on the execution. It depends on did you have a certain play called and you got a certain look that you were hoping for and did you make the throw and did you make the catch? Did you make the block? Did you make the run?"
Denver poses a different challenge than Carolina. The Broncos have the 24th-ranked defense but the most productive offense.
The Patriots could be without safety Steve Gregory, who broke his thumb against Pittsburgh. But Devin McCourty is having an outstanding season at the other safety spot after switching from cornerback last season.
"I'm a guy that's played a lot of football here," McCourty said. "It's all about having some versatility, and the more you can do, the better it helps the football team out. I think that's been huge. Not just myself, but a lot of guys have been in on defense, being able to fill different roles and help our defense get through games if a guy goes down or if we have to make some changes."
For now, though, the players could take a short break from preparing for their next opponent.
"I'll start with just trying to get the body recouped, get some treatment, a little bit of rest," Mankins said. "Then, I have to get the house winterized, get it ready for winter. Clean up some leaves, put the patio furniture away, those kinds of things."
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