Bye-week questions for Patriots

The New England Patriots will be idle for the first round of the playoffs. This will give New England a chance to rest and improve before its playoff debut Jan. 14.

In the meantime, here are some questions for the Patriots during the bye week:

1. Will the Patriots learn to start fast?

New England started a disturbing trend the past two weeks. The Patriots have fallen asleep in the first half before making a pair of furious comebacks. They overcame deficits of 17 and 21 points the past two weeks against the Miami Dolphins and Buffalo Bills.

Perhaps the Patriots were dealing with complacency during their eight-game winning streak. But New England must start fast in the playoffs. The Patriots won't face the Dolphins and Bills in the playoffs. New England needs to put together four good quarters or the team can be one-and-done. The Patriots learned that hard lesson their last two postseason appearances.

2. Can the defense step up?

The AFC is filled with tough defenses. Four of the NFL’s top seven defenses are in the AFC playoff bracket. New England will face one of those great defenses as early as next week. Can the Patriots’ leaky unit match the intensity?

The defenses of the Pittsburgh Steelers (No. 1), Houston Texans (No. 2), Baltimore Ravens (No. 3) and Cincinnati Bengals (No. 7) are all capable of giving Tom Brady and New England’s offense some issues. If Brady only puts up 23 points in a playoff game, for example, can New England’s defense hold an opponent to 20 points?

That may be the big scenario that could determine if the Patriots make it to Indianapolis. Their defense needs to step up.

3. Who stars in the running game?

New England's running game has been on and off this season. There were stretches when it has been really good and stretches when it has disappeared from the offense.

This time of year is when playoff teams need to be able to run the ball. The Patriots obviously are a passing team. But they need enough balance to prevent opponents from dropping everyone back in coverage.

Patriots running backs Stevan Ridley, BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead have all had their moments this year. But neither player has fully taken over the reigns at the No. 1 tailback.

Lately Ridley’s had the hot hand. He may be the answer going into the playoffs. But Ridley is a rookie and the Patriots need to make sure during this bye that he’s ready to perform and not make rookie mistakes in the high-stakes playoffs.

4. Who would New England rather face?

The AFC East blog did a poll earlier this week asking Patriots fans which team would they rather see at Gillette Stadium on Jan. 14. The overwhelming consensus was Tim Tebow and Denver.

I understand why New England fans would want Tebow. The Patriots pounded the Broncos earlier this season and Tebow is struggling down the stretch. But I think the safer scenario is for the Bengals to win and travel to Gillette Stadium. The chances of Denver beating the Steelers aren’t great. The Bengals winning wouldn’t leave anything to chance.

But I think everyone agrees the team the Patriots don’t want to face is the reigning AFC champion Steelers, who beat New England earlier this year. Yes, running back Rashard Mendenhall (knee) is out for the year and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has a bum wheel. But the Steelers remain a tough out for anyone.

It also would mean New England has to beat Pittsburgh and Baltimore in back-to-back weeks to get to the Super Bowl. That’s the toughest road possible for the Patriots.