With a quarter of the season now complete, what area of the Patriots' performance has you the most optimistic and which has you the most concerned?
Jason: I'm happier than Christopher Columbus with speedboats regarding the play of the linebackers. That was an area of weakness last year, but the growth of Spikes and the addition of Hightower has turned that into an area of strength. It's not unreasonable to think they could be the best unit on the team next year (and that's saying something when you're talking about a team with Tom Brady under center). The biggest concern for me is the offensive line. A solid case could be made for the secondary being the weakest unit, but if the big guys up front get Brady killed, the season is effectively over. If they play as well as they played last week, the Pats will be playing in February. If they play like the previous week, the Patriots will be looking at an early playoff exit.
Raj: I like that the Patriots offense has finally found it's chemistry. We saw it against Buffalo and I believe that it will continue. This offense should intimidate any defensive coordinator of the teams that the Patriots play this season. If not, I call that overconfidence. What really has me concerned still is the secondary. They allow way too many yards early in the game, do fine in the middle, but then choke at the end. Simply put, that CANNOT happen! Offensive coordinators of the teams the Patriots play this season will take advantage of that and I don't want that to happen so they gotta fix up that secondary real fast. After all, our offense can only so much.
Stephen: The area that gives me the most hope is the running game. The Patriots' recent playoff downfalls have occurred because of a lack of balance on offense. With Aaron Hernandez sidelined, the ground game has stepped up big time. Stevan Ridley looks like a future Pro Bowler, Brandon Bolden provides a physical element, Danny Woodhead contributes in passing situations and Shane Vereen is probably the most talented fourth-stringer in the league. As long as the Pats can run the ball effectively, this offense will be unstoppable. On the flip side, I still have concerns about the secondary. Devin McCourty looks better than he did in 2011, but the other three spots leave me uneasy. I'd like to see Tavon Wilson get more snaps, and I seriously wonder what's going on with Ras-I Dowling. He appears to be in the doghouse, which doesn't bode well for the former 33rd overall pick.
Derek: For me, the highlight of the season thus far is the defensive front seven. Chandler Jones has been a delight to watch so far and has been an instant infusion of life into what was an anemic pass rush. Vince Wilfork is as steady of a presence as ever, and as sacreligious as this may sound, there are times when I wonder if he, not Brady, is actually the best (not most important) player on the team. Then there is Brandon Spikes, who has developed a reputation for bone-jarring, fumble-forcing hits. Jermaine Cunningham seems to be finding his way, and Jerod Mayo remains at a Pro-Bowl level. Overall, the improved level of play here adds a completely new element to the defense.
I know a lot of people are down on the secondary, but in today's pass-favoring NFL, corners and safeties are going to get torched. My biggest worry has been the offensive line, as we've seen what happens to this team in big playoff games when teams are hitting Brady at a consistent rate. If there's one sign of encouragement though, it's that the O-line showed marked improvement against the Bills, even Logan Mankins sidelined. If they can keep it up, it bodes very well for the Patriots post-season chances.