This morning I posted a poll on how many wins the Pats will have this year. The consensus right now is 8 or 9, which seems pretty rational to me based on what we have seen so far. And the schedule is becoming tougher over the next 7 games. But can they improve? Will they? Here are some variables: 1. Matt Cassel - will he improve? Discussion: Some QB's (Ben Roth., Matt Ryan) come in as rookies and seem to "get it" almost right away. For others, it takes time for the game to "slow down". It seems clear to me that Cassel has the physical skills, but at this point he is not yet "seeing the whole field" - he is leaving a lot of plays on the field (how many cliches is that?) We have to remember he has only played 5 NFL games, and only 5 games since high school. Practice and preseason are not the same as real NFL games. Is it possible he will improve? Certainly. Will he? The jury is still out (another cliche!) 2. Will the offensive line solidify? Discussion: The offensive line has already allowed 19 sacks (or more - that was at halftime last night). Steven Neal is on PUP. Kascur is now injured, but if he and Neal return to form we will have the same offensive line we had last year when we went 18-1, which allowed a league low 21 sacks. Of course Tom Brady's pocket presense and quick reads had a lot to do with that, as do Matt Cassel's lack of the same at this point (see #1). I think there is room for upside as this group gets more experience together. That's not the same as saying it will happen, but it could. BTW, did anyone see a dropoff from Kascur to Levoir? Based on one game, I didn't. 3. How bad is our secondary? Discussion: I think the loss of Asante is hurting us more than we care to admit. While his gambling may have hurt us at times, the number of interceptions he pulled in had to give opposing quarterbacks pause about throwing it in his direction. Hobbs has been OK, although he has difficulty matching up with big physical receivers. Deltha Dawn, what's that flower you have on? Deltha O'Neal looked OK for a couple of games, and in a couple of other games (including yesterday's) he has looked downright awful. He was released by the Bengals - who haven't exactly been known for stellar defense - that says a lot right there. Behind him are rookies (Wheatley and Wilhite) and also-rans. The safeties have been average. Rodney is certainly not the presence he used to be, and James Sanders is a JAG. One bright spot has been Brandon Merriweather. He has taken a big step forward from his rookie year and has "flashed" a couple of times, getting a couple of picks already and a couple of big hits. I think he has upside, as do the rookie cornerbacks, but again, potential is just potential. 4. Why aren't we getting any pressure on the quarterback? Discussion: Remember when Richard Seymour was considered an elite defensive lineman? I don't see that anymore, and I don't see the effort from him on some occasions either. There was one play last night when Rivers was flushed out of the pocket and pursued to his right by Seymour. In the past Seymour would have run down a big not-so-fast QB like Rivers - last night he just gave up. Wilfork and Warren have been solid at holding against the run, but have not now (or ever) put a lot of pressure on the QB. In our 3-4, that has generally come from the linebackers. We will usually rush one or two LB's as well as the 3 down linemen, and in the past have gotten sacks from the likes of Bruschi, McGinest, Colvin, Vrabel. I don't see that happening any more - Vrabel is nowhere near where he was last year, when Bruschi makes a play it is noteworthy, and A Thomas has been average. The one bright spot has been Jerod Mayo, who certainly has been solid and will only get better. But I don't see a lot of upside potential from the rest of this aging front seven, and expect that at least 2 or 3 of the veterans will be gone next season. 5. Will the real Randy Moss please stand up? Discussion: Where is the guy who broke Jerry Rice's record last year? I acknowledge that it is a lot different catching passes from Matt Cassel than from Mr. Brady, but Moss has been MIA since the playoffs began last January. In last nights game he had a couple of opportunities to make plays where he could not haul the ball in. Were they tough catches? Sure, but the top NFL WR's are supposed to make the tough catches, and Randy Moss is supposed to be amongst the best. We need to get more out of him. It is going to be very interesting to see how his demeanor and effort unfolds over the remainder of this season. Will he step up, will he revert to his Raiders form, or something in between? 6. Will this be a typical December to Remember? Discussion: since BB took over the Patriots they have traditionally played very well in December. The classic example was of course 2001, when they went 9-0 to win the Super Bowl after starting 5-5. In 2003 they started 0-2 and also won the Super Bowl. BB coached teams have historically played better when the mercury drops. At least when they have Tom Brady. What happens this year?