- Field Yates, ESPN Insider
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The game will take place just more than a year after the Patriots' first and only loss at Gillette Stadium during the 2011 season, a heartbreaker to the New York Giants.
In the moments after that game, questions were flying as to whether the 5-3 Patriots, who had lost consecutive games to teams that would eventually find themselves in the playoffs, had what it took to measure up to the cream of the crop in the NFL.
As it would turn out, eight weeks and eight wins later the Patriots had clearly established themselves as the dominant team in the AFC, and they ended up representing the conference in the Super Bowl.
Fast forward to the here and now, and the Patriots are once again 5-3.
And while the team has won four of its past five games, some remain quick to point out the team's defensive deficiencies and perceived inability to deliver a consistent offensive effort with the game on the line.
Has anything changed?
Through eight games in 2011, the Patriots were tied for fourth in the NFL in scoring (27.8 points per game) and were second in the NFL in total offense.
This season, the team is tops in both categories, averaging 32.8 points per game and 440.8 yards per outing.
Digging deeper inside the offense, it becomes clear that the Patriots are a different and more balanced unit. Though the team has attempted 337 passes through eight games this season, an identical total to last year at this juncture, those passes have accounted for just 55.0 percent of all offensive plays, down from 62.9 percent last season.
Not only are the Patriots running the ball more frequently (34.5 attempts per game compared to 24.9), they're doing so with greater effectiveness, as they check in as the fifth-best rushing team in NFL, averaging 149.6 yards per game. That's nearly 40 yards more per game than in 2011.
The emergence of Stevan Ridley, who is on pace to become the first Patriots running back with 10 100-yard rushing games in a season, has played a role in the surging rushing attack, as has an up-tempo pace that has increased the offense's average number of plays per game (from 67.4 to 76.6).
Gronkowski's 43 catches are just one off his pace from 2011, though he's been targeted four more times. After setting an NFL record for touchdowns by a tight end in 2011, Gronkowski's seven through eight games in 2012 surpass his 2011 total of six over the same span.
Welker, whose slow start in 2012 raised questions about his role within the offense, hasn't been quite as productive as his totals from last season, but remains tied for second in the NFL with 60 catches. He trails just Colts wideout Reggie Wayne for the NFL lead in receiving yards.
Due to the absence of tight and Aaron Hernandez for nearly five games, the Patriots have come to rely on a one-tight-end, three-receiver set in 2012. They've already run 337 plays from "11" personnel, up from 175 last season. Despite the shift, it's clear the productivity has not dipped.
While the defense remains a work in progress, the Patriots can take solace in marked improvement in a number of statistical categories. The defense is yielding nearly two fewer points per game at this juncture in 2012 (21.3 as opposed to 23.0) and has cut down its yards allowed per game by nearly 50 (416.2 to 369.8).
The decrease in yardage can be traced to an improved effort at cutting down big plays (plays of 20 yards or more). Although the team has surrendered 28 of those plays already, that's 10 fewer than at this point last season.
The Patriots again are in the middle of the pack for sacks, with 17.0 in 2012, two ahead of 2011.
Add it all up and it would appear that yes, things have changed.
The Patriots have been more productive in the first half of 2012 than they were in 2011.
But what does it all mean?
Spend a day, even an hour in the Patriots' facilities, and it will become clear that the team isn't interested in relying on statistics to figure out solutions. It cares about results, wins.
A season ago at this time, the Patriots had chewed through the teeth of their schedule and survived the halfway point with a 5-3 record and an inside track to another AFC East title.
With 19,000-plus miles traveled in their rearview mirror, a bye week at hand and an itinerary that won't see them leave the Eastern time zone for the balance of their schedule, the Patriots again have gone through many of their most difficult tasks (although a six-day December stretch that features home games against the Houston Texans and San Francisco 49ers looms large).
The team again has the inside track on the AFC East crown as the lone team without a loss within the division.
A year ago, the Patriots jumped off from this point of the season and never looked back.
The numbers suggest this group is stronger than that team was through eight games.
Only one question remains: Can the Patriots piece together another special second half in 2012?
Field Yates covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.
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