- Chris Forsberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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Six games down, 10 -- or up to 14 -- to go (depending on your level of optimism). Here are five key questions as the Patriots get set to emerge from their bye week:
1. What's the potential for this defense?
The Patriots should get a few bodies back on the defensive side of the ball after the bye, including linebacker Jerod Mayo. It will be interesting to see if improved health will further aid this unit's ability to gel. You know the story by now: New England gave up a bazillion yards over the first four weeks of the season and is still ranked dead last in the league in total yardage allowed.
That said, the Patriots have put together back-to-back quality defensive efforts and the points allowed statistic -- the bottom-line metric for any defense -- has creeped up to 14th in the league (22.5 points per game). Defensive players preached patience at the start of the year, but can they continue to build off the quality play before the bye?
2. Who wins the job opposite Patrick Chung at safety?
One of the biggest storylines entering the season was how the safety position would shake down after the team gave James Sanders and Brandon Meriweather the boot. Two months into the season, we're still uncertain of that answer.
James Ihedigbo has done a nice job the last two weeks, but it remains to be seen whether Josh Barrett or Sergio Brown can win back starting roles once healthy -- or if the team employs some sort of rotation there. It would seem to be a help to the defense if someone like Ihedigbo can step up and lock down that role. Developing chemistry with Chung and the rest of the unit could go a long way toward solidifying the defense as a whole.
3. What impact will the return of the PUP players have on the team?
No position has been hit as hard by injuries as the defensive line (two players on injured reserve in Mike Wright and Myron Pryor; minor injuries for those active), so it would seem that both Ron Brace and Brandon Deaderick will have a chance to carve out roles if/when they return to action.
But it will be interesting to see how long it takes them to shake off the rust. Remember, both were starters at times last season, so there's plenty of potential. Also worth watching is the trickle-down effect, as these two will bite into the reps of others. Does Brace's return mean fewer chances for Kyle Love to develop, or will Vince Wilfork simply get more rest?
As for Kevin Faulk, he's 35 coming off an ACL injury, not a recipe for running back success, but we'll have to see where he's at physically. His experience should aid him in getting on the field, but will his return force rookie Stevan Ridley to sit on the back burner the rest of the way?
When questions arise about why a young player isn't logging more court time, Celtics coach Doc Rivers is famous for noting, "Everyone loves a backup quarterback." It's true, sometimes we're all guilty of overvaluing a player based simply because they haven't shown us why they're not out there. All that said, two players in particular have been in the spotlight for being unable to get on the field this season: second-year players Taylor Price and Jermaine Cunningham.
Price is a little easier to explain considering the Patriots can barely find reps for the likes of Chad Ochocinco, but his presence for a mere one offensive snap this season, especially after showing flashes of potential during the preseason, has raised eyebrows.
Cunningham is a bigger head-scratcher. The second-round pick played nearly 600 snaps during his rookie season and simply can't carve out a role this year with a switch to a base 4-3 defense.
Will either player see increased snaps moving forward?
5. Can the Patriots win a playoff game?
Yes, it's ridiculous to wonder if a team that's hung three Super Bowl banners over the past decade can win a playoff game. But the fact remains that this team has lost its last three playoff contests, including one-and-dones on its home turf each of the past two seasons. In both of those games, the Patriots simply got punched in the mouth; now it's time to see if they're able to punch back.
Each time the Patriots have started the season 5-1 under Bill Belichick, they've won at least 12 games, which bodes well for how the rest of the regular season will play out. That said, the Patriots went 14-2 last year and what good did that do them? Given the Patriots' past success, they're measured by how many games they win in January and February.
Chris Forsberg covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.
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