What could possibly derail the Patriots this season?
These are the halcyon days for His Hoodiness and the Patriots. They look like an unstoppable football freight train whose destination is Santa Clara, Calif., site of Super Bowl 50. There are few obstructions on their vengeful track to glory. But even a team that looks destined for a perfect season isn't perfect.
So, between now and Feb. 7, what could derail Patriots before they cradle the Lombardi Trophy for a fifth time? Here are five questions surrounding the Drive for Five.
1. Is the Patriots' collection of cornerbacks championship-worthy?
This isn't a referendum on whether Malcolm Butler is a true No. 1 cornerback yet. Butler is good enough, even if we don't need to credit him for photo-bombing the receptions he is surrendering. It's the other guys — Logan Ryan, Justin Coleman, and Rashaan Melvin — who could get exposed by an upper-echelon quarterback, one with the Manning surname, perhaps.
The Patriots are middle-of-the-pack in pass defense (15th, allowing 249.3 yards per game).
Some Patriots followers will point out that that team made the Super Bowl with the 31st-ranked pass defense. True. But that secondary benefited from an all-time run of feckless and fraudulent opposing quarterbacks with names such as Mark Sanchez, Tyler Palko, and Tim Tebow.
Somewhat like their 2011 forebearers, the current crop of corners has avoided full-strength passing attacks. At some point, the corners will face a QB crucible.
2. Is the inexperienced and injured offensive line up to task?
The Patriots have started three rookies, mixed and matched their lineup during games, and weathered the loss of starting left tackle Nate Solder, out for the season with a torn biceps. The line also has endured injuries to starters Shaq Mason, Marcus Cannon, and now Tre' Jackson. The state should hire offensive line coach Dave DuGuglielmo to patch the leaks in the Big Dig tunnels with the way he has prevented the offensive line from springing leaks.
But Tom Brady remains his own best pass protection. Brady is the quickest quarterback on the draw in the NFL, taking only 2.14 seconds in the pocket to unleash a pass attempt, according to Pro Football Focus. Still, he has been hit and harassed more than the Patriots would like. New England's 18 sacks allowed are tied for 13th-most in the NFL.
When the Patriots' offense unravels in a big game, it usually starts with Brady becoming unnerved about what's in front of him.
3. Can the run of good health to cornerstone players continue?
Injuries affect every team. The gridiron Grim Reaper doesn't discriminate. However, the Patriots have been fortunate that the irreplaceable players on their roster haven't had to be replaced. Brady, Rob Gronkowski, and Edelman haven't missed a game. On the defensive side of the ball, Dont'a Hightower missed one game with a rib injury.
The Patriots haven't suffered a season-altering injury, like the Pittsburgh Steelers losing running back Le'Veon Bell with a torn medial collateral ligament or the Green Bay Packers losing top wide receiver Jordy Nelson to a torn ACL in the preseason. Last season, the Arizona Cardinals looked like a Super Bowl contender until quarterback Carson Palmer tore his ACL after the team's 9-1 start.
An entire region holds its breath any time Gronk crashes to the turf like an overturned china closet. Not even Belichick can control injuries.
4. Can Brady keep up his current otherworldly play?
The only other Tom to age this well is Cruise. Brady's play might not decline, but his prolific pace could. Brady is tied with Palmer for the NFL lead with 20 touchdown passes, despite playing one fewer game. He is second in the league in passing yards with 2,410 and on pace to throw for 5,509 yards, which would break Peyton Manning's NFL record of 5,477, if San Diego's Philip Rivers doesn't get there first. His 68.9 percent completion percentage would tie his career high.
After his nearly eight-month Deflategate ordeal, Brady is playing like a man possessed. He is dismantling every defense he faces, the way his lawyers tore apart the spurious reasoning for his four-game suspension in federal court.
But sustaining this level of focus, fire, and production for an entire season isn't easy, especially when the weather turns less hospitable to heaving the ball 50 times a game. When past Patriots teams have come up short, overreliance on Brady putting 30 points on the board with the ease of breathing has been at the root of their demise.
5. Will the Patriots have to endure a season of cheating aspersions cast upon them?
This question has little to do with the team's ultimate success or failure, but it is still a pertinent one when it comes to enjoyment of the season. Belichick's misjudgment in Spygate, the polarized public debate surrounding Deflategate, and the seemingly institutional mistrust that exists among their NFL brethren have made it open season on the Patriots.
It's one thinly veiled accusation of rule-bending after another. In the season opener, there was Steelers coach Mike Tomlin insinuating that the Steelers' coach-to-coach communication being replaced with the Patriots radio broadcast was the result of radio frequency foul play. Then there was the NFL's "random" sweep of the visitors locker room at Gillette Stadium for listening devices on Oct. 25. That feels more than coincidental when it was done the same day that the Jets requested NFL Security investigate the presence of individuals behind the Patriots bench wearing headsets and their roles regarding radio frequencies in the stadium.
The Patriots are going to be under a microscope all season. A past slip-up, their success, and the NFL's handling of Deflategate have opened the floodgates for sour grapes and gripes.
There is no question about that.