Judgment time has arrived for the Patriots.
After getting through the first half of the season with an impressive 6-2 mark that earned New England a two-game lead in the AFC East, the team's long-term hopes will be tested in the next four weeks with a stretch that begins with Sunday night's trip to Indianapolis to take on the undefeated Colts.
While the annual November meeting between the NFL's two most consistent franchises of the past decade tops the slate of games, particularly due to its potential playoff seeding ramifications, it's by no means the end of the Patriots' impending gridiron gantlet.
After taking on Manning and the Colts, New England returns to Foxborough for a rematch with Rex Ryan's still loud but now far less intimidating Jets. New York beat the Patriots in Week 2 at the Meadowlands during its 3-0 start to the season, but Ryan's team has fallen on tough times to sit at 4-4 at the midway point.
After that always interesting division battle, the Patriots get another potential undefeated foe with a Monday night trip to New Orleans to take on Drew Brees' high-powered Saints. That's followed by another Sunday night game on the road, a Dec. 6 meeting with the Dolphins in Miami.
The chance is there for the team to play two undefeated teams, two of its most competitive division foes and a three total road games in a month-long stretch. If the Patriots are going to be who they want to be, the team many analysts thought they'd be heading into the season, it must start with a successful march through a challenging stretch.
Super Bowls aren't won in November, but a team can certainly make its road to one much tougher. That's the test the Patriots face in the next month. And they know it.
"The whole second half of the season really has a lot of challenges from week to week," coach Bill Belichick said.
That starts Sunday in Indianapolis, a rekindling of the best rivalry in the conference in recent years. It will go a long way toward determining when and where the teams might be playing in the postseason. A head-to-head win over the Colts would put New England in line to challenge for one of the top seeds in the conference. A loss would give Manning & Co. the inside track to controlling home field throughout the postseason.
First and foremost, the Patriots must do something that hasn't come easily this season -- play well on the road. New England is technically 1-2 on the road, with losses in New York and Denver. And in reality, the Patriots' only road win was actually a neutral-site victory over the Buccaneers in London. Don't think Belichick hasn't noticed the discrepancy in his team's record.
"I'm sure that's what Bill will be pounding home to us, the fact that we haven't played very well on the road," running back Kevin Faulk said. "We need to play better on the road, plain and simple."
The weeks of facing winless foes like the Bucs and Titans are over. The so-called easy games are in the rearview mirror. The Patriots have met the meat of their 2009 schedule, a stretch that could very well decide the team's fortunes moving forward.
--QB Tom Brady's 332 yards in beating the Dolphins marked his third consecutive 300-yard game and the 27th of his career. He moved past Drew Bledsoe (26) as New England's all-time leader in 300-yard games.
--RB Laurence Maroney's 20 carries for 82 yards and a touchdown marked the first time the back got 20 or more carries in a regular-season game since he ran the ball 26 times on Dec. 6, 2007, against the Jets. That performance kicked off the most productive stretch of the former first-round pick's career, as he topped 100 yards four times in a five game stretch that included the first two rounds of the playoffs.
--WR Randy Moss's 71-yard touchdown against Miami was the 140th of his career, tying Terrell Owens for second place on the NFL's all-time list. Moss, who has 13,913 career receiving yards, used his six catches for 147 yards against Miami to move past Henry Ellard (13,777) and Cris Carter (13,899) on the NFL's all-time list.
--WR Wes Welker had a game-high nine catches for 84 yards in beating Miami. Having notched 111 and 112 catches in his first two seasons in New England, Welker's 55 catches have him on pace for 110 receptions, despite missing two games to injury.
--TE Benjamin Watson caught four passes for 49 yards against Miami, including a 23-yarder. Watson has caught a pass of 23 yards or longer in four of the past six games.
--LB Jerod Mayo is now at full health after his early-season knee injury and showed it with a game-high 12 tackles against Miami.
--LB Tully Banta-Cain had a trio of quarterback hits against Miami to go along with nine tackles, although he missed out of a big play when his would-be strip sack that turned into an Adalius Thomas touchdown return was overturned via a Miami replay challenge as an incomplete pass.
--S Brandon McGowan continued his role as a key player in the New England defense, finishing with 11 tackles and a forced fumble in the victory over Miami.
--OL Dan Connolly, a versatile backup, had an interesting day against Miami, as he returned a squib kickoff 16 yards, lined up as a reserve fullback for Laurence Maroney's touchdown run and then filled in for an injured Dan Koppen (knee) at center.
--PK Stephen Gostkowski tied a career high with four field goals (30, 38, 34, 40) in beating the Dolphins. Gostkowski is now 17-for-20 on field goals for the season, 14-for-15 from inside 40 yards. The fourth-year kicker also has 15 touchbacks on 49 kickoffs this season.
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