Now the real midterms start.
With all due respect to the duly elected officials across the United States, the race for playoff spots now begins in earnest across the NFL, and the Patriots find themselves right in the thick of things in the hotly contested AFC East.
Winners of four of their last five games, the Patriots are staring at a critical three-game battleground stretch against the Jets, Vikings, and Bills.
The key word will be pressure. Can Matthew Judon & Co. continue to bring it on defense and can Mac Jones and friends handle it on offense?
A look at some things to watch for before the polls close Jan. 8.
▪ The schedule
There’s no way to sugar-coat it: It’s a bear.
Of the eight games left, six are against teams with winning records (counting the Bills twice). Sunday starts a grind of three games in a 12-day stretch that includes back-to-back Thursday nighters.
Following a mini-bye that begins Dec. 2, Bill Belichick’s club will spend a week out West with games at Arizona and Las Vegas. That’s four straight prime-time games.
But first is a Jets team that will be looking to avenge last month’s loss and snap a 13-game skid in the series.
“There’s a lot at stake here when you look at these next coming games in the back half of the season,” said Matthew Slater. “Everybody’s playing for something and especially in our division.
“So the rivalry [with the Jets] is certainly renewed, not that it ever died, but I think the stakes are high. Emotions will be high and they will be highly competitive. And there’s a lot on the line.”
▪ The defense
Similar to last season, these guys are on a midseason roll. Following a windswept win in Orchard Park last December that capped a seven-game winning streak, New England had one of the best defenses in the league.
The post-bye week collapse (four losses in five games) took the shine off, but this year’s unit should be fresh enough to keep every game competitive.
Defensive tackle Davon Godchaux is fond of saying “stop the run and have some fun,” and that mantra will be key down the stretch.
The pass rush has been outstanding, led by sackmeister Judon, who has collected 11.5. Because others (particularly Deatrich Wise and Josh Uche) have been able to get home too, opponents can’t dedicate double-teams on Judon.
As a bonus, the impending return of Christian Barmore, who missed the last three games, should translate to more interior pressure.
What’s been crucial is that the Patriots have been able to affect the quarterback without dialing up a ton of blitzes, which has led to coverage sacks and turnovers.
The overhauled linebacking corps is younger and faster, though spying and stifling mobile quarterbacks is still an issue. With Josh Allen (twice) and Kyler Murray on the itinerary, this will be a coaching point of emphasis.
The secondary is terrific.
Devin McCourty hasn’t lost a step, and he ties everything together with his elite communication skills to go along with strong coverage and tackling abilities. Fellow safeties Kyle Dugger (he’s a teeth rattler), Adrian Phillips (try to find a tougher 5-foot-11-inch, 210-pounder), and Jabrill Peppers (he can play multiple roles) give coaches lots of matchup flexibility.
The cornerback corps has been outstanding. Jonathan Jones has seamlessly transitioned to boundary corner opposite Jalen Mills, allowing Myles Bryant to thrive as the slot corner.
Rookies Jack Jones and Marcus Jones are being rotated in and gaining valuable experience. They haven’t looked a bit out of place.
▪ The offense
Mac Jones has been under siege as the offensive line has undergone changes because of injuries and inconsistencies.
The line that started the season — Trent Brown (left tackle), Cole Strange (left guard), David Andrews (center), Mike Onwenu (right guard), and Isaiah Wynn (right tackle) — should be back in place Sunday. This quintet will be tested right out of the gate, as the Jets front is formidable. If it can re-jell, that will go a long way to rebuilding Jones’s pocket confidence.
Quick passes are another way to make Jones comfortable, and in this vein, getting tight ends Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith as well as running backs Rhamondre Stevenson and Damien Harris more involved with quick throws and bubble screens could be in order.
Stevenson (4.8 yards per carry) and Harris (4.3) give the Patriots a solid 1-2 punch in the ground game. Four of the final seven games will be played in the blustery Northeast, so being able to run the ball will be imperative to success.
▪ Other factors
Jake Bailey’s 35.3-yard net average on punts is concerning. The good news is his leg strength is still there (as evidenced on kickoffs), so this seems more like a technique issue that can be worked out … Marcus Jones appears poised to break either a punt or kick return for a score … Final-stretch breakout candidates: Offense: Henry. After scoring nine touchdowns last season, he has just one. Rekindling his rapport with Mac Jones will lead to good things, including creating opportunities for others. Defense: Jamie Collins. His time on the practice squad could soon be over so that his freaky athleticism can be used to get after the mobile quarterbacks.