Big second half? Patriots' remaining schedule ranked second easiest

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- In the wake of a disappointing loss leading into their bye week, New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady looked ahead with a positive twist.

“The whole season is ahead of us,” he said, which was a reference to having a 7-3 record, one of the best in the NFL, and a two-game lead in the AFC East. “We’ll see what we do with it.”

Patriots players were in for meetings Tuesday, and a practice is scheduled for Wednesday. They want to fine-tune some things and best position themselves for the final six-game stretch of the season. Then the plan is to get away for the bye weekend.

“At this time of year, rest is always a good thing,” coach Bill Belichick said.

The road ahead

Using ESPN’s Football Power Index, the Patriots’ remaining schedule ranks as the second easiest in the NFL, behind the Buffalo Bills.

Using opponents’ current won-loss records, the Patriots’ strength of schedule ranks tied for 25th.

Here’s a closer look:

  • Nov. 25: at Jets, who are losers of four in a row to drop to 3-7. Rookie quarterback Sam Darnold might not play, as he missed Sunday’s loss with a foot injury.

  • Dec. 2: vs. Vikings, who are 5-3, have the NFL’s best third-down defense and rank second in sacks per opponent pass play.

  • Dec. 9: at Dolphins, who seem to be a much different team at home (4-1) than the road (1-4), as this is also a place where the Patriots have traditionally had some struggles.

  • Dec. 16: at Steelers, who have won five in a row after a slow start and will be looking for revenge after losing at home to the Patriots last season. The game is arguably the toughest remaining on the schedule.

  • Dec. 23: vs. Bills, who played the Patriots tough in an Oct. 29 loss at home without rookie quarterback Josh Allen. The possibility of Allen’s return by this point of the season adds a potential slice of intrigue, as the Bills (3-7) likely will be out of the playoff mix at that point.

  • Dec. 30: vs. Jets, who, similar to the Bills, will be playing out the string.

Reinforcements on the way

Tight end Rob Gronkowski, who has missed three of the past four games, said before the bye that he’s working to get back to being himself on the field. He was healthy enough to travel to Sunday’s loss, so he shouldn’t be far off from a return.

Furthermore, running back Rex Burkhead is eligible to play against the Vikings after being elevated to practice from the injured-reserve list last week. And rookie cornerback Duke Dawson, the second-round pick from Florida, was moved up to the 53-man roster Tuesday to add another sure-tackling option in sub packages and on special teams.

Key issue to address

Of all the areas the coaching staff will assess during the bye, the team’s kickoff coverage is clearly one of the top priorities. Usually a strength, the club ranks last in the NFL, as opponents have an average starting field position of the 27.6 yard line.

With opponents averaging 26.4 yards per return, the Patriots’ coverage unit ranks 29th.

Inconsistency in this area, as well as punt coverage (No. 31 ranking), has limited the Patriots from playing complementary football. Furthermore, it has stripped away the possibility of the Patriots consistently imposing their physicality on the opposition, something that has long been a big part of their identity.

That’s a surprise given the financial resources the Patriots pour into special teams.

“We have probably had more breakdowns in that area than what we are used to having in previous years,” Belichick said, when asked specifically about kickoff coverage. “It’s definitely an issue. We’ve got to coach it better. We’ve got to play better. The whole operation has to be better. We have six weeks to get it to a high level and hopefully we’ll be able to do that.”