By: Bob George/BosSports.net
November 15, 2011

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Okay, they are still at or near the bottom of the league in every defensive category. But look on the bright side. You haven't seen Devin McCourty, Kyle Arrington, Patrick Chung and James Ihedigbo in some neck music video singing about this beverage that they like.

Which means that the Patriots won't get fat and happy like some other team you know well did back in September.

Ironically, the Patriots had a far better September than the Sons of Yawkey Way did, and it may extend beyond that. Coming off the impressive 37-16 win over the Jets on Sunday night for their first win at Exit 16W in the Rex Ryan era, now everyone is looking way down the road, and that includes the good people who make book out in Clark and Washoe counties in Nevada.

Right now, the Patriots and Steelers are the favorites to make it to Indianapolis in February as AFC representatives. The Steelers are installed at this moment as 4-1 favorites to win the AFC championship, with the Patriots an eyelash behind at 9-5. What with all the problems the Patriots have had all season long on defense, it is very possible that the Patriots could go 13-3, which would require running the table from this point on, and 12-4 is not at all a pipe dream. In the playoffs, there is no team that the Patriots would be prohibitive underdogs against short of the Super Bowl itself.

The AFC is a flawed conference in 2011, and recent injuries to key players have made it even more so. Peyton Manning's cataclysmic neck injury has relegated the Colts to a rebuilding team with its sights dead set on Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck. Houston seemed to be on track to unseat the Colts as AFC South champs, but Matt Schaub may be lost for the season. Ben Roethlisberger may also be headed for some bench time due to injury. Ditto for Kansas City's Matt Cassel.

Add to this the inconsistencies of Philip Rivers, Mark Sanchez and Joe Flacco, and the fact that Buffalo seems to be regressing to the norm, and you can see why the road to Indianapolis isn't that bumpy for the Patriots. It may not be as smooth as I-70, but it isn't as far fetched as you might think. The Patriots are heading into a very easy schedule stretch, and as long as they don't lose every single strength of schedule or strength of victory tiebreaker, things should be looking up for the Patriots, and that perhaps could include January as well.

Defending champion Green Bay could become the first team since the 2004 Patriots to repeat as Super Bowl champs. Or the Patriots themselves could prevent that if they do indeed make it to Lucas Oil Stadium as AFC Champs. Right now, the Packers look invincible, and any prognostications regarding the conference championship ring hollow once the Vince Lombardi Trophy gets hauled out and the winner gets to take it home.

But that's really getting ahead of ourselves. Right now, which team poses the biggest threat to the Patriots finally making it back to the Big Show since the 2007 season?

Ravens

This team has the defense that can shut down any offense. As long as they have Ed Reed and Ray Lewis lurking out there, the rest of the defense feeds off of them and can play at the highest of levels at any time. This defense can shut down Tom Brady, and it did just that two Januaries ago.

The key here is on offense, and how they approach it. Instead of having Flacco being charged with trying to win the game, it should be Ray Rice. Rice blistered the Patriots in 2009, and he is still a matchup problem. The Patriots would have to load up and stop the run, daring Flacco to beat them through the air. That may be inviting trouble in the secondary, but Flacco is prone to bad games and it is a good gamble.

Jets

It's sick. Rex Ryan, if he had to, would find a way to outcoach Bill Belichick if they met again in January even though the Patriots took the Jets 2-0 this season.

Trying to explain why the Jets played so poorly on Sunday night is like trying to explain why the Patriots played so poorly at home in last year's playoff loss. Plain and simple, Ryan won the coaching battle and shut down Brady just enough for his team to win by a touchdown. And this was about a month after the Patriots beat the Jets 45-3 in the same venue.

Sanchez showed Sunday night that he is, like Flacco, prone to bad games. But when he is right, he is better than given credit for. Sanchez has a bevy of receivers who can easily navigate their way through the Patriot defense. Shonn Greene has a nice backup who may be bound for Canton some day, as LaDainian Tomlinson provides a terrific change of pace in his new role as subordinate running back.

Bottom line: Jets should be favored if these teams meet for a third time. The Patriots could win, but it will be a dog-ugly struggle.

Steelers

In 2004, the Steelers snapped the Patriots' 21-game winning streak around Halloween. But in the playoffs, the Patriots won by two touchdowns. Both those games were in Heinz Field.

So in 2011, the Steelers took it to the Patriots and won handily. And that was without Hines Ward, James Harrison, James Farrior and eventually Ike Taylor. The Steelers looked like they should have always looked against the Patriots, even though history says the Patriots usually dominate this matchup.

With Roethlisberger looking at down time, the Patriots might be in a better position in a postseason rematch, which would likely be in Pittsburgh. The Patriots usually match up well against Pittsburgh and Belichick can outcoach Mike Tomlin like he did Bill Cowher.

What the Patriots need to do against all these lower-tier opponents coming up is to get their defense settled and nail down all the roles and responsibilities. With Albert Haynesworth gone, the Patriots will probably explore a return to a base 3-4. Andre Carter and Mark Anderson have established themselves as a nice pass rush tandem, and any pressure on the quarterback helps the secondary a great deal.


Is Patrick Chung the key to success for the 2011 Patriots? (FILE:Icon/SMI)
Assuming Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes get over what ails them, the Patriots have a nice front seven heading into the playoffs. Assuming that tight ends like Dustin Keller, Heath Miller and Todd Heap don't exploit some holes in pass coverage, this unit should be good enough to get the Patriots at least to the AFC Championship Game. The Patriots had a difficult time containing Miller in the loss to the Steelers, though Keller was not a factor on Sunday night.

The Patriots, as always, will go as far as their secondary will take them. McCourty suffered a separated shoulder thanks to a hit from his own man, Sterling Moore. Perhaps the key here is Chung, who needs to become a quarterback in the mold of Lawyer Milloy or Rodney Harrison. Chung may not be as talented as these former Patriots, but he has the ability to make big plays. What Chung needs to do is to be able to do is to become to the secondary what Dan Koppen was to the offensive line, meaning to call out the correct coverage schemes and assignments. And he needs to do it well, not to just do it. The Patriots play receivers way too soft and give up too much underneath. The defensive backs need some help, and maybe Chung is the guy for the job, if he can come back from his injury.

And who knows, the Patriots might just get their date with the Packers in February. And if Green Bay happens to be 18-0 at the time, the Patriots will know exactly how they feel.


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