John Crist: Tom Brady has been on fire as of late, throwing multiple touchdown passes in five straight games and putting together a passer rating of 100 or better in five of six. Getting rid of Randy Moss meant no more deep threat, so how has Brady been able to compensate?
Jon Scott: Moss was known for being the deep threat of the Patriots during his time in New England, but that's not all he did. Moss also caught screens, which enabled him to get a head of steam going with blockers out front. To address the deep threat, New England has used second-year receiver Brandon Tate to stretch the defense, while also asking Deion Branch or one of the tight ends to also get downfield.
Without turning to the long ball, Brady has worked on improving his short- to mid-level passing game, finding targets in space and allowing them to run after the catch. Wes Welker continues to be the most productive receiver, but the rookie tight ends have perhaps had the most direct impact on the passing game.
JC: The Patriots run the ball for about 10 yards per game more than the Bears do, plus their yards-per-carry average of 4.2 is better than Chicago's 3.9, yet they're doing it with the likes of BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead. Does the line deserve most of the credit?
JS: Green-Ellis has run hard since he arrived in New England. He even played fullback at points last season. He languished behind the likes of first-round bust Laurence Maroney and oft-injured Fred Taylor at times. Utility man Sammy Morris was ahead of Green-Ellis until this season began, and Green-Ellis took over for Taylor, who was injured again, and Kevin Faulk, who was lost for the season. To see Green-Ellis succeed is no real surprise to those who have watched him contribute during his three seasons in Foxborough. He's a hard runner who gets yards after contact, many times carrying the pile with him. That's in stark contrast to Maroney and Taylor and even Faulk to a degree.
Woodhead is a matchup nightmare when he's in space. His footwork is so good, he can make guys miss him while using fantastic body control to squeeze through holes the size of a grapefruit. He's a younger, more nimble version of Faulk.
Yes, the offensive line has something to do with their success, but the addition of Alge Crumpler and Rob Gronkowski at tight end has really helped. The other factors are the running style of these two backs and a renewed commitment to the run with the play-calling.
JC: Brady has gotten outstanding production out of a pair of rookie tight ends in Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. How do these two players complement each other, and are there any tendencies that have developed depending on which one of them is out on the field?
TE Rob Gronkowski
JS: Gronkowski is beast. He's huge (6-6, 264 pounds) and built like rock. He's the big, physical presence New England had when Daniel Graham was blocking and catching for the Patriots during their Super Bowl runs.
Hernandez is more athletic, resembling a receiver more than a true tight end. He's also smaller (6-2, 236 pounds) than Gronkowski, so blocking really isn't his specialty. Hernandez can get open in a zone and then find a way to turn a short catch into a big gain.
Brady looks for Gronkowski in the red zone, while Hernandez is a bigger threat in the open field.
JC: New England is having trouble in the defensive backfield and allowing 276.8 yards per game through the air, which is 31st in the NFL. The corners look to be really young, but is the safety combination of Patrick Chung and Brandon Meriweather most at fault here?
JS: The Patriots have turned over their starting cornerbacks every year since their last Super Bowl appearance. They've also undergone turnover at safety. Gone are the likes of Asante Samuel, Ellis Hobbs, Rodney Harrison, Eugene Wilson and Randall Gay. In are guys like Chung, Leigh Bodden, Darius Butler, Brandon McGowan and Sergio Brown. You can't name a starting lineup in the secondary for the Patriots that has remained together for more than half a season since 2008.
McGowan and Bodden – both veteran leaders for the team – were lost for the season due to injuries. Those injuries forced the team to use rookie Devin McCourty at one spot and second-year undrafted free agent Kyle Arrington at the other. Mix in Butler, a second-year player, and Brown, an undrafted rookie free agent, and you can see why the Patriots are mistake-prone in the secondary. Veteran James Sanders has been a big part of the solution for New England at safety. He's helped stabilize the mistakes made by Chung and Meriweather, but Sanders isn't a cover guy, as we've seen over the course of this season.
JC: Because Bill Belichick and Co. are sporting three Super Bowl rings and still have Brady under center, they get as much respect as any club in the league and perhaps more than they deserve from time to time. But after murdering the Jets 45-3, is this the team to beat?
JS: I've seen a lot of good football come from the Patriots, along with a large chunk of bad football. They're not a dominating team from top to bottom at this point, but they can be as long as Belichick and Brady remain together. The irony here is that since the Patriots' 2004 Super Bowl win, the national media has been quick to label New England a club in rebuilding mode, a team few put at the top of their power rankings. Instead, darling teams like the Colts, Ravens, Chargers, Steelers or even the Jets have been touted as the ones to beat. Yet when New England played those Super Bowl favorites, the Patriots found ways to get the job done. That's been the case since I've been covering this team (2001).
New England wasn't always the favorite. Often they have been the "other" contender – with the exception of the 2007 season, when no team had an answer for Brady-to-Moss and the Patriots were everyone's pick. Until we see the break-up of Brady and his head coach, I think they deserve consideration for top-five or even the top spot every season. There isn't anyone they can't beat when things are going right.
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Be on the lookout for Part II of this Behind Enemy Lines series, where John answers five questions on the Bears
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