FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick often makes the point that the NFL is a "week-to-week" league. As much as things can look good one week (e.g. following a 43-21 win over the Broncos), they can look pretty bad another week (e.g. 41-14 loss to the Chiefs in Week 4).
With this in mind, and while acknowledging that the Patriots (7-2) are currently in a good position, here is a look at things that could potentially be the biggest roadblocks for them in the coming weeks:
Unexpected injuries. This tops the list for any team and serves as a reminder of how fragile things truly are. Outside of quarterback Tom Brady, the biggest drop-off from the top player(s) to the next player(s) would be at tight end (Rob Gronkowski) and linebacker (Jamie Collins, Dont'a Hightower). If Chandler Jones somehow doesn't make a full recovery, defensive end could be added to the list.
Too many penalties. With 79 accepted penalties in nine games, the Patriots are on pace for just shy of 140 on the season. That will obliterate the high total under Belichick, which was 111 in 2003. In one respect, the past two Super Bowl champions (Seahawks, Ravens) were among the league leaders in penalties. So this isn't all bad. But it seems fair to at least ask the question, "Will one of these penalties ultimately cost them a game when it counts?"
Short-yardage running and run defense in base personnel. For those who subscribe to the theory that a good running team is one that can pick up the yards when the defense knows it is coming, the Patriots are still a question mark in that area. In addition, when the Patriots are in base personnel on defense, they haven't consistently shown the ability to stop the run. Patriots coach Bill Belichick, in his weekly interview on sports radio WEEI, was lamenting some of the team's work in this area. "That third-and-short situation hasn't really been a good one for us, on either side of the ball, statistically relative to league averages," Belichick said on the Dale & Holley program. "We have to do a better job of that."
If turnovers stop being produced. With a plus-12 turnover differential (18 takeaways, 6 giveaways), the Patriots find themselves in a familiar position -- the No. 1 spot in the NFL. A big part of the Patriots' defensive identity is playing physical and producing turnovers, and in years where the team's season has come to an early end, the turnovers have sometimes dried up. This defense might ultimately prove capable of overcoming that possibility, but that's still to be determined.
Does youth show up at center? Early returns with rookie Bryan Stork (fourth round, Florida State) have been mostly positive. As is the case with any rookie adjusting to the longer NFL season, sometimes the dreaded "rookie wall" can show up later in the season. Given what we saw in the AFC Championship Game last season, when struggles at center contributed to the offense never finding its groove, this area bears watching.
Generating pressure with standard rush. As we saw in last Sunday's win over the Broncos, the Patriots can produce pressure through scheme. But a question remains if they can do so out of the more standard four-man rush when the scheme might not be producing the desired results.