Rob Gronkowski's gives some love to the end zone militia in Foxboro. Credit: Getty Images
The Patriots are sitting pretty atop the AFC East with a 7-2 record after their Week 10 bye. It certainly hasn’t been a pretty seven wins, but it’s those grind-it-out games that may prove beneficial down the stretch and into the postseason.
So, how did the Pats get to this point and where are they going? Here are some superlatives heading into the final seven games of the regular season:
MVPs (so far) – Chandler Jones and Devin McCourty On a defense that has lost so many players over the course of the season, you’d think that the Patriots would be giving up tons of points. But through their first nine games, they’re only allowing an average of 19.4 points per game, good for eighth fewest in the NFL. The defensive line has taken some hits, but Chandler Jones is doing his own hitting. He has 50 tackles on the year, including a team-high 8.5 sacks. Devin McCourty is the most versatile player on the Patriots defense, being able to play safety, cornerback, and special teams. He also has 50 tackles on the season, to go with six passes defended. He’s been huge in the secondary for New England, especially with Aqib Talib out.
Biggest loss – Vince Wilfork You could make a case for Jerod Mayo – the brains of the defense – but Big Vince Wilfork edges out Mayo here. The reason is simple: Wilfork is the best nose tackle in the game, often times commanding double teams from the offensive line, which then frees things up for another player on the Patriots D. With Wilfork (and Tommy Kelly) out for the year, opposing teams have found success up the gut, averaging 128.2 yards on the ground per game (30th in NFL). Replacements Chris Jones and Joe Vellano are doing their best to fill in.
They'll need more from – Stevan Ridley Stevan Ridley rushed for 1,263 yards and 12 touchdowns last season. Needless to say, there were big expectations for him this season. That’s why it’s been a bit of a head-scratcher as to why his role in the offense started off so small. Ridley has only reached the 20-carry plateau twice this season, and topped 100 yards once – last week. Perhaps that’s a sign of things to come. The Patriots offense has been hard to watch at times, so getting Ridley more involved to help balance the passing game with the running game is essential going forward.
Most likely to be dominant by Christmas – Rob Gronkowski To give you an idea of the importance of Rob Gronkowski to the Pats offense this year, he’s already reached a new career-high in receptions per game – twice. Gronk caught a then-career-high eight passes against the Jets in Week 7, only to pass that in Week 9 against the Steelers (nine catches, 143 yards, touchdown). He’s averaging 11 targets per game. But even when Gronk isn’t catching passes, he makes an impact with his blocking and by opening up the field for receivers like Danny Amendola, Julian Edelman, and Aaron Dobson. Gronk is vital to New England’s success down the stretch.