1. New England has absolutely demolished its last two opponents. Are the Patriots playing their best football of the year right now?
Jon Scott: The offense is showing up nearly every week. The Patriots have found new ways to score points by spreading the ball around to more of their reserves. Jabar Gaffney, Sammy Morris and Ben Watson have all seen the ball go their direction more recently. On defense, the team still has plenty of issues. If the Patriots can get ahead on the scoreboard, then they're going to have a much easier time maintaining that lead than if they are forced to play from behind. New England is certainly peaking at the right time.
2. There's plenty out of the Patriots' hands this Sunday. The stumbling Jets need to beat surging Dolphins. Or the Pats could get a wild card bid if Baltimore loses, yada, yada. What do you predict will happen? Will New England be playing football in January?
JS: I expect the Dolphins to play well against the New York Jets on Sunday. It will be a closer game than some think in my estimate and if they win, then the Patriots are a long shot to make the playoffs. I don't expect Jacksonville to be competitive with Baltimore considering what's at stake for the Ravens, so Baltimore gets the final wild card. With those two scenarios going against the Patriots, even if New England wins at Ralph Wilson Stadium in the early game, they're going to have to hope for help late. Buffalo is better than its record, so the upset (on paper) is certainly possible. I think the Pats can outlast the Bills, but Miami is probably going to win the East.
3. Is it a foregone conclusion that Matt Cassel will not be with the Patriots next season? If so, where could he end up and what type of contract could he get?
JS: The only way Cassel stays with the Patriots is if New England uses the franchise tag on him because they're worried about Brady's recovery from knee surgery. To do that they'll need ot allocate $14 million in cap space to hold on to his rights. From what we're hearing, Brady is on track to return in time for training camp, and they have confidence in the potential of backup Kevin O'Connell. New England still has former Michigan Wolverine Matt Gutierrez waiting in the wings and he's shown flashes similar to Cassel.
If New England does trade Cassel, or let him go via free agency, the contract he'll sign will be somewhere between Matt Schaub's 6-year 48 million deal and Marc Bulger's 6-year $65 million deal. Cassel will earning the $20 million guaranteed range, and the only way to make that happen is to extend the contract. Whoever signs him better run an offense similar to the Patriots, or they're going to have to pay for Cassel's second learning curve. His first one took four years.
4. Speaking of Cassel, explain exactly what he's done this season --- from not starting a game since high school to nearly throwing for 4,000 yards?
JS: Cassel had to grow into the offense. It's taking him a while to get things going, but once he found out how to exploit the coverages, he's had some big games. He was only the fifth player in NFL history to post back-to-back 400 yard passing performances against the Jets and Dolphins respectively. His ability to continue plays by using his feet has actually opened things up underneath as defenders need to be concerned if he'll run the ball – something Tom Brady never did.
5. Who should see the majority of the carries at running back for New England Sunday?
JS: You're going to see a heavy dose of Sammy Morris on Sunday as he's the team's preferred running back. LaMont Jordan isn't as versatile as Morris is, but Jordan runs with more power. Kevin Faulk will be used as the change of pace back. The Patriots running game is unheralded because there is no clear-cut runner and they're not hyped like other backs. New England has quietly risen to the level of 7th best rushing attack in the NFL They lead the league in first downs 135 vs No 2 (Baltimore) at 124. The Giants who have the best rushing attacks in totals yards, are third in first downs, and have just 19 rushing touchdowns (6th). New England has 20 TDs with their approach tied for 3rd best in the league behind just Tennessee (24) and Carolina (29).
I use these stats because yardage doesn't mean anything unless you can turn it into something productive. The Patriots have found ways to sustain drives, gain crucial first downs and get into the end zone using the run. Morris and Faulk have been the keys to that production with Jordan adding a much-needed tough inside running attack.
6. Jerod Mayo has 121 tackles this season as a rookie. What does he mean to the Patriots' defense?
JS: Mayo is dominant at the inside backer position on this team and without him they'd be in real trouble. He hasn't received nearly the credit due because he's still learning the defense and the Patriots have been burned badly by teams attacking the linebacker group. Last week I read one piece by a writer who claimed the Cardinals could exploit New England's slow linebackers. I'm not sure what he's talking about because Mayo is one of the fastest backers with "field speed."
Often he stays in on third down because he has the speed to cover backs and tight ends out of the backfield if need be. Gary Guyton appears to be the fastest backer on the roster, able to act like a safety at times, but Mayo isn't far behind and he is a tackling machine. Mayo's quickness allows him to catch the play from behind. A comparison to Mayo is the days when Tedy Bruschi used to dominate the inside for New England. Bruschi's best years were Super Bowl seasons (2003,04) when he managed 131 and 122 tackles respectively. Mayo is having a similar impact. If he can find a way to get in on more pass plays like Bruschi had a knack for, Mayo would be the complete package.
Jon Scott covers the Patriots for PatriotsInsider.com.