<
>

Midseason report: New England Patriots

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- When the New England Patriots were crushed by the Kansas City Chiefs on “Monday Night Football” on Sept. 29, they dropped to No. 16 in ESPN’s NFL Power Rankings and were widely being questioned. Quarterback Tom Brady’s future with the franchise was even being debated in some circles.

The 2-2 Patriots appeared to be in some trouble at that time, but as we've learned, looks can be deceiving.

The Patriots, winners of five in a row since that loss in K.C., made a decisive statement to be considered the AFC’s top team by capping the first half of their schedule with a 43-21 victory over the Denver Broncos on Nov. 2.

At 7-2, they sit atop the AFC.

Midseason MVP: TE Rob Gronkowski. A strong case could be made that he should be the NFL MVP. In the first four games of the season, he was still being eased back into the mix after tearing his right ACL on Dec. 8, 2013, and averaging just shy of 35 offensive snaps per game. During the Patriots’ five-game winning streak, he’s averaging just shy of 60 offensive snaps per game, and it’s no coincidence that the Patriots’ offense has caught fire. He has 49 catches for 663 yards and eight touchdowns, with his one-handed grab against the Broncos one of the best catches you’ll see all year. If not Gronkowski, one couldn't go wrong with tabbing Brady as midseason MVP.

Biggest disappointment: WR Aaron Dobson. One of the hot topics from the offseason was the hopeful development of the team’s second-year receivers -- 2013 second-round draft choice Dobson, 2013 fourth-round draft choice Josh Boyce and 2013 undrafted free agent Kenbrell Thompkins. But it hasn’t happened, with Dobson inactive for six games, Boyce now on the practice squad and Thompkins waived and landing in Oakland. Of the group, Dobson has the highest ceiling, and March surgery on his left foot put a wrench in his offseason and has stunted his development. The final chapter on Dobson is not yet written, but this wasn’t supposed to be part of the script.

Best moment: The Oct. 5 home victory over the Bengals narrowly edges the Nov. 2 blowout of the Broncos, and here’s why: The Patriots were coming off the embarrassing loss to the Chiefs, had one less day to prepare, and there were dark clouds hovering around the team and Brady. Unleashing their frustrations on the Bengals -- and rallying behind a fan base that knew its team needed the support more than ever -- created a memorable environment that included the crowd chanting, “Brad-y! Brad-y! Brad-y!” Then in the locker room, coach Bill Belichick presented Brady with a game ball for eclipsing 50,000 career yards in an emotional moment.

Worst moment: Every team seems to have a dud somewhere along the way. The fact that the Patriots’ came on national television in a 41-14 loss to the Chiefs on "Monday Night Football" only intensified the media spotlight on the team and those who declared the championship window closed. That was the low point, with the season-ending injuries sustained by linebacker Jerod Mayo (torn patellar tendon) and running back Stevan Ridley (torn right ACL and MCL) on Oct. 12 in a road game against the Bills another major downer. The Patriots rallied to win that game, however, which was an early indication of their mental toughness and resolve.

Key to the second half: Other than keeping Gronkowski healthy, let’s be consistent and focus on the offensive line. When the Patriots were struggling early in the season, the prevailing thought was that until the team could get its O-line situation settled, it was going to be a challenge to have any type of success. Things have indeed settled down on the offensive line, which is like the foundation of a house -- and if that is shaky, nothing else really matters. The Patriots have their O-line combination -- left tackle Nate Solder, left guard Dan Connolly, center Bryan Stork, right guard Ryan Wendell and right tackle Sebastian Vollmer -- and they’ll ride with it.