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How to explain N.E.'s turnaround

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The New England Patriots enter their bye on a high note as their 7-2 record is the best in the AFC. They are in the discussion as one of the best teams in the NFL, which serves as a reminder not to make judgments after four weeks of the season. At that point, with a 2-2 record, there were more questions than answers surrounding the Patriots. The picture has altered dramatically, which has some asking, "What has changed?"

A lot of things, but here's a quick list of what stands out most:

1. Offensive line has come together

2. Tight end Rob Gronkowski's return to form after being eased into the mix initially

3. Brandon Browner's return from suspension, adding more depth to the secondary

4. Tom Brady's excellence at keeping plays alive with his nimbleness

5. Brandon LaFell's emergence as a top receiver who gets open against man coverage

6. A few smart trades for linebacker/defensive end Akeem Ayers and Jonathan Casillas to add depth on defense and special teams

Let's get to the questions, which were overflowing, and hopefully we can cover some of the other topics we missed in last week's 'bag:

Q. Hi Mike, now that we have reached the midway point of the season, what strengths and characteristics of this Patriots team make you think it can get to a Super Bowl and win? On the flip side, what could stop this team from winning it all? -- David (North Attleborough, Massachusetts)

A. David, something I once heard Bill Belichick say that I've never forgotten is how you never really know about a team until it faces some adversity. You want to see how the team responds and how it handles those pressure moments. That's the greatest asset I believe this 2014 team has, and it's something we specifically learned about Oct. 5 against Cincinnati and then Oct. 12 against Buffalo. Obviously a team needs to have talented players, and the Patriots have those, so it's a combination of those two things that I'd say makes them a Super Bowl contender. As for what could stop them, besides injuries, the running game and pass protection are two areas that come to mind as things that haven't been overly consistent.

Q. Shouldn't Gronk be considered a leading contender in the MVP race? After using the first four weeks of the season to get into shape, look at Gronk's turnaround that led the Pats to reach No. 1 in power rankings. -- Nissam (Lima, Peru)

A. Gronkowski has my vote. But Tom Brady is a good choice too.

Q. Amazing win on Sunday afternoon against the Denver Broncos. I am very impressed at the turnaround from the offensive line. Considering the retirement of Dante Scarnecchia, I did not expect the line to thrive this late into the season. In the midst of their five-game winning streak, they gave up only six sacks to the Cincinnati Bengals, Buffalo Bills, New York Jets and the Broncos. Tom Brady is getting more time in the pocket and finding his groove. As a result, Brandon LaFell, Tim Wright, and even Danny Amendola are being integrated to the offense. The Patriots' remaining schedule is still tough. However, based on what you saw in Miami in contrast to Foxborough against Denver; what are your takeaways from the offensive line? -- Alvin (Amherst, Massachusetts)

A. Alvin, the offensive line is like the foundation of a house. If it's shaky, everything else doesn't really matter. They have settled things down a bit, which is a credit to offensive line coach Dave DeGuglielmo and the players. Part of that is picking a top five and sticking with it, which they have with left tackle Nate Solder, left guard Dan Connolly, center Bryan Stork, right guard Ryan Wendell and right tackle Sebastian Vollmer. They probably misevaluated personnel-wise a little bit early in the season, and injuries were also a factor. On film review of the Broncos game, it didn't look as good up front as it did live (e.g., Stork struggled a bit), but that's also a nitpick of sorts.

Q. How tough will it be for the Patriots to sustain this momentum going into the bye week with a tough schedule still ahead? Defensively, this is the most comfortable I've felt as a fan since 2007 and earlier. In recent years, the Patriots gave up big plays but held their opponent to field goals in the red zone. Does this defense remind you of a Patriots defense during the Super Bowl years? Do you see any glaring weaknesses going forward? -- Justin H. (Brookings, South Dakota)

A. Justin, they are well-positioned to do it, but one thing to always remember is that this is a moving target. For example, one injury can alter the picture dramatically. The thing I would focus on is the overall personnel. The Patriots have the pieces in place at the present snapshot to make them a tough matchup. The secondary, in particular, is deep.

Q. Mike, I'm a longtime reader and have been waiting a long time to ask this question, but I think now is the perfect time. Why is no one naming this defense's basic design? I call it "clock-killing defense" and think Bill Belichick has finally perfected it with the additions of Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner. They take away the long plays, the over-the-top plays, and the sideline plays -- basically anything that can help a team score quick -- forcing the opposing offense to play in the middle of the field near the line with short runs or passes. By doing so, the opposing offense has to eat up a lot of clock to score. If they only score a field goal, it's even better, as Belichick is essentially saying, "We'll trade you 3 points for 6 minutes." This shortens the game drastically, preventing the other team from scoring a lot of points. Couple this defensive approach with an offense that's designed to score quick (with less time) when needed and league rules that favor offenses, and I think Belichick has created a genius scheme. What do you think? -- Justin (Irvine, California)

A. Good thoughts, Justin. I focus more on the personnel and how they are a tough matchup for any foe because they are deep in the secondary and also have some talented players in the front seven. Belichick deserves some credit, as well, for managing players through various issues and keeping the unit competitive while also working in concert with personnel chief Nick Caserio to add depth at the trade deadline. What happened with Akeem Ayers on Sunday (77 of 82 snaps) speaks to how they often do things around here; to identify an undervalued asset in the marketplace and then immerse him into the system that quickly and have him ready is impressive. Your point on not giving up the big play is well taken. That's been cited by players as a big part of their approach, and we just need to go back to 2012 to remember how those really hurt the Patriots' defense.

Q. Hi Mike, what I saw Sunday night was similar to what I saw in the Pats' first Super Bowl win. Beat up the player that could do the most damage. In the Super Bowl against St. Louis, the Patriots hit Marshall Faulk whether he had the ball or not. The Pats did the same thing to the Denver wide receivers. I noticed on a couple of occasions Jamie Collins landing hard on receivers while they were on the ground. And let's not dismiss the hit on Wes Welker. Did you see the same similarities? -- Ron (Phoenix)

A. Absolutely, Ron, and this was noted in the second-quarter film review (point No. 7). The Patriots defense was more physical, and I thought it showed up on the first play of the game -- a strong run force where you see safety Patrick Chung rock Welker back and cornerback Kyle Arrington making himself unblockable. The Patriots brought the hammer down, and Browner is a big part of that with the edge he brings.

Q. Mike, while Brandon Browner was the aggressive corner we've needed, I saw too many flags. Area of concern? Also, while the coverage was solid throughout, 438 yards for Peyton Manning is still 438 yards, and I thought Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders were too open too often. Is this a concern? -- Charlie (Oklahoma)

A. Charlie, Browner has seven penalties in three games. I thought some of them were 50-50 calls that could have gone either way, but those are the bottom-line facts as we look at it right now. The energy, attitude and playmaking skill Browner brings to the unit is a positive, so there is a balance between those things and the penalties. On the yardage for Manning, I wouldn't be too concerned. He's very good, and a lot of it came later in the game.

Q. Hi Mike, impressive win. What surprised me most was the ability of the Pats' defense to shut down the Denver running game. I really expected the Broncos to exploit the Pats' previous troubles in this area. What changed? On the other side of the ball, I was surprised not to hear Terrance Knighton's name mentioned much or at all. How did the Pats effectively neutralize him? Thanks. -- Kevin O. (Silver Springs, Maryland)

A. What changed? Two words: Vince. Wilfork. As for the offensive line, it was actually Sylvester Williams who gave the Patriots more trouble than Knighton from this view. The interior still struggled at times, but it hung tough and Knighton's performance in the AFC title game was probably the best of his career. Hard to duplicate that.

Q. Mike, Peyton was quoted as saying the following after the game: "I don't usually stink. I stunk today." I think the most encouraging thing for the Pats is that he did not stink. We saw very good play from the Broncos, including Peyton, and we still won. We'll see if this remains the case come playoff time, but my feeling is the Broncos didn't blow it. Our boys won. Do you agree? -- Andy (Washington D.C.)

A. Andy, the Patriots showed they were the more complete team during that 60-minute stretch of football. They deserve the credit. At the same time, I didn't think the Broncos played well (e.g., dropped passes, missed blocks up front) and expected they'd be better.

Q. It seems like Darrelle Revis has the most trouble with speed receivers like Sanders and Wallace. Do you agree? How would you rate his performance vs. Denver? -- Ashley (Worcester, Massachusetts)

A. Ashley, I wouldn't say Revis has "trouble" with anyone, but we did see two plays made on him during Denver's first scoring drive. That's going to happen. After that, we hardly heard his name called again. I'd say that was a pretty strong performance overall, but when you're assessing it in real time, sometimes you can be influenced by a small cluster of plays made on a defender.

Q. Hi Mike, insert two quality free-agent cornerbacks into the secondary and look what happens to the defense. It almost seems un-Patriotlike to have the highest-paid player on the team come from free agency, but who can argue with the results. Are we witnessing a philosophical shift in the way free-agent dollars will be spent in the future or was an exception made because it was Revis? In my opinion they have failed to add star power at CB and WR through the draft. I would love to see them spend accumulated picks along the lines of scrimmage and get proven WRs and CBs in free agency. Lafell, Browner and Revis have been A+ adds. I would love for this to be a trend. -- John (Fort Lauderdale, Florida)

A. John, I don't think this is any type of philosophical shift. Had things worked out differently, I think they would have been happy to have Aqib Talib back, but they had a great fallback plan when an unexpected opportunity presented itself. It's just about adjusting to the ever-changing market. As we look ahead, I do think they'll be competitive to retain Revis, and it probably helps them that he is technically under contract for a second year as they consider a longer-term arrangement.

Q. Hey Mike, quick question about Akeem Ayers. He seems to be a pretty good fit for the Patriots' defense (albeit in an admittedly small sample size) given how quickly he adjusted to it. Do you know what his contract situation is and do you think the Patriots would be interested in keeping him around long term? -- Timber (Boston)

A. Timber, this is the final season of Ayers' contract. He is scheduled for unrestricted free agency after the season.

Q. Mike, how good has Akeem Ayers looked in the last two games!? This is a guy who has been here, what, 11 days and played what had to be close to 90 percent of the snaps against a potent Denver offense and performed spectacularly, including a HUGE drive-killing sack on fourth down. He's my unsung hero of the game. -- Matt (Burlington, Vermont)

A. Matt, I was stunned when tabulating the playing-time stats and considering the impact he had in the game. I credit him on the play (also Vince Wilfork on the sack, because it was a game they played together), the personnel staff and the coaching staff for making it work. Very impressive.

Q. Hi Mike, I was pleasantly surprised that the Patriots defense was so stout against the run. It made the Broncos offense one-dimensional and forced Manning to pass on practically every play in the second half. One of the biggest plays in the game was Akeem Ayers' sack of Manning on fourth down. I was expecting a personal foul penalty for tackling a quarterback below the knees, but it wasn't called. Did the referee miss it or was it a legitimate hit? -- Speros Z. (Salem, Massachusetts)

A. Speros, the hit looked similar to the Chris Jones hit on Geno Smith from the Oct. 16 Jets game. It's close to the knee. Jones' hit was ultimately deemed legal.

Q. Mike, thanks for all the great work. In the spirit of perfection, Brady was great Sunday, very tough in the pocket, but do you think you are being fair to Danny Amendola to blame the INT on him? Thought it would have been a tough catch in the base case and may have been tipped before it even got to him. Also, you seem eager to squeeze Logan Ryan on your down list most weeks. Thanks again, Mike, but wondering if those two deserve a little more slack after a great win. -- Bob (Houston)

A. Bob, I thought Amendola could have made the catch, but if you're going to pin that play on anyone, it's probably best to start along the offensive line. Not sure what was happening up there, but it basically let a free rusher come in on the play and force the issue. Overall, Amendola is doing some good things (e.g., third-down catches to move the chains), so one play doesn't overshadow all that. On Ryan, he had the perfect response to the penalty by making the tackle on the rekick. On the whole, I'd say that probably wasn't my best ups-and-downs list, and that's why I always mention that it is done immediately after the game and without the benefit of film review. If I could do it over again, I would have moved center Stork from "up" to "down" and made sure Wilfork was accounted for in the "up" category. This is why coaches often say, "We'll have to look at the tape." Same situation here.

Q. Hi Mike, is there any update on the status of Chandler Jones? The game against the Colts will be played 31 days after the injury sustained in the Jets game. Is there a chance he makes the trip to Indianapolis? -- Gary (East Hanover, New Jersey)

A. Gary, let's start with this: Jones is still on the roster, which tells us that the Patriots believe he has a chance to return this season. The expectation was about six weeks from the time of the injury (Oct. 16), and one would think the Patriots take more of a conservative view. So I'd start focusing on December there.

Q. Hi Mike, how long until Josh McDaniels gets offered another crack as a head coach? Same with Matt Patricia. The game plans for Denver reminded me of the '01-04 Patriots defenses that befuddled Manning in every matchup. -- Jeremy (FPO Pacific)

A. Jeremy, I'd hire McDaniels if it was my choice. I see parallels between him and Belichick, circa 2000. As for Patricia, that was terrific work, and I think it's important that I'm consistent in this area. I've often said that this is Belichick's scheme and Patricia is coordinating it (and doing a fine job), so it would be disingenuous of me to alter course now. Between McDaniels and Patricia, the Patriots have their coordinator spots in good hands, which is the way I've always felt.

Q. Hey Mike, I wanted to take a second to look away from the Broncos game to take a look at the Bills and the Dolphins. This may be (with the 2008 season aside) the best the division has been in the BB era. Which one of the two has the best chance to make the playoffs and challenge the Pats for the division? -- Anand (New York City)

A. Anand, if Ryan Tannehill keeps playing quarterback like he did Sunday against the Chargers, I'd go with the Dolphins. The Bills have Kyle Orton at quarterback, and there's a drop-off from Tannehill to Orton from this viewpoint.