How far into January the Patriots go will be determined by a number of factors that will begin to unfold over the next four weeks. The most important of which is whether the Patriots can keep themselves in the running for a first-round bye.
The banged up Pats are undoubtedly eyeing their fellow division leaders, the San Diego Chargers (10-2) and the Baltimore Ravens (9-3). New England can forget about surpassing the Indianapolis Colts (10-2) in the playoff seeding unless Peyton Manning takes a helmet to the knee, but the No. 2 spot is up for grabs.
The Patriots have the easiest schedule remaining, with games on the road against Miami, Jacksonville and Tennessee. Their last home game against Houston in Week 15 should be a slam-dunk.
Meanwhile, the Chargers play Denver, Kansas City and Arizona at home and travel to Seattle. The Ravens play on the road against Kansas City and Pittsburgh and at home against Cleveland and Buffalo. San Diego has looked like the most complete team through the first 12 games of the season, but both of the AFC West foes remaining on their schedule are going to be fighting for Wild Card spots and may be more desperate for a win. Baltimore's schedule figures to be a little easier, so it is conceivable that the Patriots could win their next four games yet still find themselves playing in the first week of the playoffs.
Last weeks nail-biter against the Detroit Lions reinforced the fact that Bill Belichick's squad is still struggling to find a consistent formula for victory. But they're not as far off as they looked last Sunday.
The Patriots still control their own destiny in many ways. Here are the things that need to happen between now and January if the Patriots are going to win their fourth championship in six years:
1. Rodney Harrison needs to return from his broken scapula and be able to play effectively. Harrison seems to have the first part covered as he has proclaimed that the next time he steps on a football field wont be next July. New England's pass defense has allowed 210 yards per game, 18th in the league. They haven't been horrible, but good passing offenses, such as the Colts, have found separation in the secondary. In recent weeks, the Bears and the Lions have been taking deep shots down field in an effort to expose fill-in safeties Atrell Hawkins and Chad Scott. The results have been a few long completions and just as many pass interference calls. If Harrison is healthy enough to be effective, he has the playmaking ability to make teams pay for those deep shots. Harrison's prowess near the line of scrimmage against the run may also help the Patriots account for the loss of Junior Seau.
2. Laurence Maroney and Corey Dillon both need to be factors in the ground game. The Patriots got off to a fast start to the season on the ground, racking up high yardage totals as Dillon and Maroney made for a formidable 1-2 punch. But the past two weeks have yielded just 79 yards in the close call win against the Lions and 85 yards rushing versus the Bears. Maloney's back injury may limit his activity this Sunday against Miami, but he has practiced all week and New England needs their most explosive runner to be close to 100 percent in January. The Patriots also need Dillon to continue running effectively in short yardage and goal line situations. The veteran has 10 touchdowns this season and is still the team's most effective runner between the tackles.
3. New England's offense needs to start taking better care of the football. The bad news is the Patriots offense has turned the ball over nine times in the last two weeks. They have given the defense the ball 24 times already this season. They had 23 giveaways all of 2005. Now the good news: The Pats defense has 27 takeaways this season - 50 percent more than the 18 they had all of last season. The Patriots would not have beaten the Lions and the Bears the last two weeks if they weren't equally as adept at forcing fumbles and interceptions as their opposition.
4. Stephen Gostkowski needs to hit a few more field goals over 40 yards. The rookie kicker has hit impressive field goals from 52 and 49 yards at Gillette Stadium. But Belichick has also passed up several opportunities to kick 40-plus yard field goals over the course of the season. That may change with the new FieldTurf providing better traction for the kicking game. Ideally, Gostkowski wont be put into a make-it-or-lose situation in the playoffs, but against good teams, having a kicker who can consistently hit a 45-yarder can be the difference between winning and losing.
5. New England's defense needs to get off the field on third down more consistently. Opposing offenses are converting third downs 37.5 percent of the time, ranking the Patriots defense 15th in the NFL. The Patriots have buckled down when it counts, allowing nine touchdowns in 25 trips inside the red zone. However, the last two weeks against weak offenses, the Patriots allowed third down conversions 12 times in 28 attempts.
6. Tom Brady's accuracy needs to continue to rise. Brady finally got his completion percentage above 60 last week, when he completed a season-high 71 percent of his passes. He has seemingly become more comfortable with his new wide receiver corps. Yet he has uncorked an inordinate amount of bad passes this season, throwing behind receivers, short-hopping passes and having passes tipped at the line of scrimmage. While not all of his interceptions have been his fault, he is on pace to throw 16 picks, which would be the most he's ever thrown in a season. Decisions like hurling a ball into double coverage in the end zone against the Colts, leading to an easy interception, will need to be eliminated.
7. A dependable third wide receiver option needs to emerge. Reche Caldwell (46 catches) and Troy Brown (32 catches) are clearly the top two wideouts at this moment. In reality, neither is better than a No. 2 option. Back in October, it appeared Doug Gabriel was going to carve out a niche in the passing game, as he caught 20 balls from Weeks 3-8. But after fumbling in Week 10 against the Jets, Gabriel has not entirely escaped Belichick's doghouse and he has just five receptions since in limited playing time. Chad Jackson has been nearly invisible most weeks and did not play against Detroit because of hamstring soreness. Even when on the field, Jackson has struggled to be the consistent deep threat the Patriots hope he can develop into.
8. Ben Watson needs to spend more time with the football in his hands. Whether they have been dropped passes or fumbles, the Patriots leading receiver (48 catches) has been putting the ball on the ground far too often the last few weeks. Defenses have made some good plays on the ball when Watson has fumbled, but his lack of concentration has also led to passes going in and out of his hands and turning into interceptions. Watson is one of Brady's favorite targets and will continue to get looks if he is open. In an offense that lacks a true No. 1 wide receiver, Watson cannot become a non-factor because he can't hold onto the football.
9. The Patriots need to cut down on penalties, especially on defense. With 643 penalty yards on defense, the Pats rank in the bottom third of league. Last week, the Patriots were flagged for ten penalties, the most in one game for any team during Belichick's tenure in New England. The Patriots have made a name for themselves out of the disciplined brand of football that won them three championships, but that reputation is taking some hits with their recent mistakes.
The road to improvement starts Sunday against the Miami Dolphins. One more loss this season and New England is likely to be on the road for the AFC Divisional Playoffs like last season, when they lost in Denver because of penalties, turnovers and missed field goals. They were problems that crept up at the worst possible time for the Pats and ultimately ended the 2005 season. They are the kinds of problems that will end this season short of a Super Bowl as well. Luckily, the Patriots still have the fourth quarter of the season to figure some things out.
Dave Fletcher is a longtime contributor to Patriots Insider. An accomplished writer and sports analyst, you can find more of his articles by searching for "Dave Fletcher" in the archives on PatriotsInsider.com