Commentary

Five key questions facing the Patriots

Updated: October 24, 2011, 12:06 AM ET
By Mike Reiss | ESPNBoston.com

Five non-injury related questions to be answered for the New England Patriots the rest of the year:

1. Can they win in the playoffs?

Bill Belichick and his one-game-at-a-time mantra wouldn't approve of this question, especially since the picture can change quickly with one major injury. But all we can go on is the present and the 5-1 Patriots have positioned themselves well for another playoff berth.

So then the question becomes: Are they built to win in the postseason after three straight playoff losses (going back to 2007)?

The offense has proven to be well-rounded, still lethal through the air but also capable of grinding things out when that's what the defense is giving it.

The defense … well, that's still a developing storyline.

Belichick said a few weeks ago that one aspect of the defense he feels good about is its performance in the red zone, which he called improved from recent years. Through six weeks, opponents had an NFL-high 24 trips inside the red zone against New England, with the defense surrendering 13 touchdowns. That's pretty solid.

Meanwhile, the Patriots were last in the NFL in third-down defense in 2010, but they are showing signs of being better in that area too, as the Jets were 3-of-11 and Cowboys 4-of-12 the last two games.

If the defense stays on course in those key areas, it will go a long way toward answering this question in the affirmative.

2. Will pass protection hold up in big games?

For an offensive line that lost starting center Dan Koppen for the season in the first week and has been without starting right tackle Sebastian Vollmer (2010 second-team All-Pro) for five of the first six games, one couldn't ask for much more.

[+] EnlargeBrian Waters
Tom Szczerbowski/Getty ImagesWith Brian Waters providing a steadying presence, the Patriots' offensive line is in better shape than it has been the last couple of seasons.

The Patriots rank 10th in the NFL in sacks allowed per pass play (11 in 248), with quarterback Tom Brady absorbing a total of 28 hits. Of those hits, 13 have come in the last two weeks against Ryan-coordinated defenses -- Rex Ryan's Jets and Rob Ryan's Cowboys -- as there have been some leaks up front.

More pressure is coming, starting with the next three games on the schedule -- at Pittsburgh, home vs. the Giants, and at the Jets.

When reflecting on the Super Bowl loss to the Giants from the 2007 season, starting left tackle Matt Light made the point that the line picked a bad time to have its worst day. The protection wasn't at its best in playoff losses to the Ravens (2009 season) and Jets (2010 season) either.

With Vollmer's possible return from a back injury and the steadying presence of veteran right guard Brian Waters, this line could be the best of the bunch.

3. Will there be a breakthrough for defensive lineman Albert Haynesworth?

It's true that the stat sheet doesn't tell the whole story with Haynesworth, who has totaled two tackles in four games. He drew two holding penalties in the season opener and occupied multiple blockers to create opportunities for others against the Cowboys.

But the expectation was that he'd do more than that.

To this point, it hasn't hurt the Patriots because Vince Wilfork and Kyle Love have handled the bulk of the duties at defensive tackle. But the concern has to be if Wilfork can keep up this pace.

Wilfork has been charted on the field for almost 88 percent of the team's defensive snaps, which is a major spike from last season through six games (63.5 percent) and two years ago at this juncture (60.5 percent).

It would be a stretch to call this a necessity for the Patriots, especially with potential help coming from the physically unable to perform list in Ron Brace and Brandon Deaderick. But the Patriots acquired Haynesworth with hopes he might show flashes of his old dominant self.

That hasn't happened yet.

4. Can Devin McCourty turn the corner?

The bar was raised high for McCourty after an impressive rookie season that included seven interceptions and a Pro Bowl berth. He's still looking for his first pick this season. Overall, his performance has been up and down and he's also been at the top of the team's tackle charts, which isn't where a cornerback wants to be.

When looking at players who have not matched what they did previously, McCourty is one of the first to come to mind.

The Patriots' defense will need more from him.

5. Does Chad Ochocinco contribute, is he a $6 million insurance policy, or none of the above?

Ochocinco hurt the Patriots with his big drop in Buffalo, costing them about five minutes at the end of the game that could have been valuable. When the team needed him most, he let them down.

Overall, he's had limited impact with just nine catches.

At this point, the Patriots don't need much from Ochocinco because Wes Welker and Deion Branch are playing well as the top receivers, and there's no reason to take tight ends Rob Gronkowski or Aaron Hernandez off the field.

But in the event Ochocinco is given the same opportunity he had in Buffalo, will be deliver?

It's not a pressing question, but one made more compelling based on the player involved and the expectations that followed him here.

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.

Mike Reiss

ESPN New England Patriots reporter

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