We asked our resident experts -- Mike Reiss, Mike Rodak and Field Yates -- to answer six questions facing the Patriots in the second half of the season.
How accurate are their prognostications? Time will tell, but be sure to vote in the polls and weigh in with your thoughts in the comments section.
1. How many rush yards will Stevan Ridley (716 in 8 games) finish with?
Reiss: Ridley leads all running backs with 45 percent of the snaps played, and the expectation is that he will continue to be the top option, although we know how Bill Belichick likes to rotate players at this position. Once Brandon Bolden returns, he could cut into Ridley's time a bit. Furthermore, I see a few tough run defenses ahead (i.e., Miami twice, San Francisco), so I'll project that it will be tough for Ridley to match his first-half total. Let's give him 1,166 rushing yards.
Yates: Ridley has been a workhorse for the Patriots through eight games, and don't discount the possibility that he'll continue to carry the load down the stretch. Pencil Ridley in for a slightly less productive second half and to finish with 1,300 yards rushing on the season. With four matchups against top-10 rush defenses remaining, the Patriots may not be able to run the football quite as effectively as they have. Couple that with additional touches for fellow running backs Shane Vereen, Bolden and Danny Woodhead and Ridley looks to be headed for a minor tail-off in the second half but still a terrific season overall.
Rodak: No reason to think Ridley won't continue his strong season. Not surprisingly, the Patriots tend to run the ball more later in the season. In a two-game stretch in December 2007, Laurence Maroney had 40 carries for 260 yards. The next season, LaMont Jordan had 142 yards on 40 carries over the final two games. In the final two games of 2010, BenJarvus Green-Ellis had 184 yards on 39 carries. There should be plenty of opportunities for Ridley, and he will finish with about 1,500 rushing yards.
2. Which of Tom Brady's targets will prove most valuable?
Rodak: While the return of Aaron Hernandez will help the offense get even better, the biggest cog from this perspective is Rob Gronkowski. When he is at his best, the offense is able to move the ball in the middle of the field while also being efficient in the red zone. Last week, the Rams didn't appear to devote enough resources to stopping Gronkowski, and they paid for it.
Reiss: No need to reinvent the wheel. It's Wes Welker. When the Patriots were splitting snaps between Welker and Julian Edelman in the first two games of the season, one wondered if perhaps Welker's importance to the offense would be lessened. If anything, it's gone in the other direction. With Edelman missing time because of a hand injury, Welker didn't have to split reps and has shown he is still the go-to guy in the got-to-have-it situations -- and all situations for that matter.
Yates: It's splitting hairs to choose between Gronkowski and Welker, but I'll give the edge to Gronk because of his ability in the red zone. The Patriots have managed to move the ball with relative ease between the 20s, but it's been red zone and goal-line play that has stumped them at times during 2012. Gronkowski, with four touchdowns in the past two games, is the team's best red zone target and a playmaker in all parts of the field. While his hip could be a concern, Gronkowski has shown no ill effects in recent weeks.
3. Are the Patriots' secondary problems solvable? Could they ruin New England's Super Bowl hopes?
Reiss: Yes, they are solvable, and for two main reasons: 1) Starting safeties Steve Gregory and Patrick Chung will return at full health. While Chung has been a disappointment, it's too early to write him off; 2) If Aqib Talib stays out of trouble and plays up to his potential, the Patriots will be a more talented unit than they were over the first eight games. On pure talent, one could make a case that Talib is at the top of the list before he even plays a game for the team.
Yates: The secondary problems aren't solved completely, but the team took a positive step in acquiring Talib at the deadline. Will it be as simple as plugging Talib in and expecting improved results? No, the group still has to execute. But schematically, the Patriots can alter their approach on defense with a capable cover corner who can take away an opponent's top target. That should open the door for more pressure packages from the front seven. This secondary doesn't have to be elite, and it won't prevent the team from making a run at the Super Bowl.
Rodak: This question will be answered when Talib steps onto the field. If he can fix the problems in the secondary, the Patriots will have a shot. If he can't, they're not going to have time to find another solution. They'll piece things together and see how far they get. Sounds like 2011, right?
4. Which team is the biggest threat to the Patriots in the AFC?
Yates: We'll find out much more about this team in early December, but the Houston Texans have the makings of the stiffest test for the Patriots in the AFC. They play exceptional defense with a vaunted front seven and run the ball about as well as any team in football. That allows them to slow the game down and could keep Brady and the offense off the field. The biggest question I have with Houston is whether its offense is capable of playing from behind. If the Pats can jump out early in such a matchup, it could be tough sledding for the Texans.
Rodak: The Patriots' Dec. 10 matchup with the Texans will go a long way toward answering this question, but until then, it has to be the Baltimore Ravens, even without defensive leader Ray Lewis. The revamped Ravens offense showed it can move the ball against the Patriots, especially with its trio of bigger receivers (Torrey Smith, Anquan Boldin and Jacoby Jones). Of course, Andre Johnson could cause problems of his own. But Patriots players have said the Ravens are always their most challenging opponent, and that doesn't appear to be changing soon.
Reiss: While tempted to go with the Peyton Manning-led Denver Broncos, the choice will be the Texans because of their defense. Of the top contenders, the feeling is that the Texans' D has a better chance of slowing down the Patriots than the Broncos' or Ravens'. Then you look at the Texans' offense, which can be explosive. If you're the Patriots, you have to feel good about the fact that you get the Texans on your home field in December for their third straight road game. That regular-season context could have long-term ramifications.
5. Which of the Patriots' eight remaining games will be the toughest?
Yates: A team built similarly to Houston is the San Francisco 49ers, and there will be just six days between the time the Patriots finish their game with Houston and they take the field at home against San Francisco. Taking on an insanely tough 49ers team is difficult enough, but throw in the fact that they will be coming off of a short week and the Patriots' Week 15 matchup with San Francisco looks like the toughest remaining game on the schedule. From this vantage point, the 49ers' defense is the best in the NFL.
Rodak: The Dec. 16 tilt with the 49ers will be the biggest test of the season for the Patriots offense. It will test the Patriots' ability to win a low-scoring game, something that may come down to the New England run defense versus 49ers running back Frank Gore. An intriguing game.
Reiss: The four games that immediately stand out as toughest are, in order, Dec. 2 at Dolphins, Dec. 10 versus Texans, Dec. 16 versus 49ers and Nov. 22 at the Jets. I included the Jets game because you still have to respect the way Rex Ryan plans defensively against the Patriots and it's a road game. But one could make a case that it's generous to include it here. The Patriots traditionally have a battle in Miami, and the Dolphins are a tough team few are talking about.
6. What will the 5-3 Patriots' record be at the end of the season?
Reiss: 13-3. At the start of the season, the prediction was a 13-3 record for the Patriots. I'm sticking with it, which means they run the table in the second half (five home games, three road games).
Yates: 12-4. Though it hasn't been perfect, nothing in the first half has served strongly enough to sway this scribe from his preseason prediction of the Patriots winning Super Bowl XLVII. If the team can piece together the secondary, and the presence of Aqib Talib is bound to help, it stacks up to any other in the NFL. Even if things don't go as planned, count on the Patriots to win at least one playoff game in 2012.
Rodak: 11-5. After the first half of the season, can anyone really predict the Patriots' record in the second half? Games against the Texans and 49ers will be the biggest tests, but it could be road tilts against divisional opponents the Jets and Dolphins that make the biggest difference. If the Patriots pull those two games out, they will most likely lock up a division crown. If they don't, they're in worst-case scenario territory and could be hard-pressed to make the playoffs. From this perspective, the Patriots will emerge with an 11-5 record and a division title. From there, anything can happen.