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Jerry Ballgame catches up with his favorite football team, the New England Patriots.

Now that the “Magic”, along with the duck boats (minus the one Jake Peavy had shipped to Alabama, of course) have been put away for the Winter, it’s time to shake off the relative quiet of the past week, and start looking ahead and try to figure out whether or not the 7-2 Patriots are a worthy second seed in the AFC. Was their 55-31 beating of Pittsburgh an indication that they’re back on track offensively, or is it more a sign the old “Steel Curtain” days of their defense is just a long ago memory? Can the Pats’ defense continue to lose key people to season ending injuries and still keep winning; or is the reality that the NFL is so depleted by injuries that you don’t have to be that good to contend? One way or another, I don’t think we’ll have to wait too long to answer these questions, as the Patriots will travel to Carolina on Monday night to take on the “suddenly” impressive Panthers, before returning home to host the Broncos.

It would be nice if the Pats could claim victory in at least one of those two contests. Given the amount of trouble that Geno Smith, not to mention the Jets’ defensive front, gave them, I’m guessing that they stand a better chance of beating Denver in what’s likely to be a high scoring affair, then they do Carolina in a tough defensive struggle. The Patriots’ offense has been buoyed by the maturing of rookie wide receiver Aaron Dobson, the increasing real game readiness of Rob Gronkowski and the fact that Danny “If he can stay healthy” Amendola’s injured groin allows him to run straight and fast. (Just don’t expect him to make too many cuts.) The return of all purpose back Shane Vereen is also going to be a definite plus as well. But, even though third year vet Marcus Cannon as done a solid job of filling in for Sebastian Vollmer at tackle, the offensive line remains far more of a concern then was anticipated it would be in pre-season, and that’s why the Panthers scare me. After all, they just held the 49ers to 9 points, and that can’t be an easy thing to do.

Guys like Dobson have really stepped up. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
Guys like Dobson have really stepped up. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

It looks now that New England really did possess a Super Bowl quality defense before the injuries hit. The fact that they could conceivably be undefeated is a real tribute to a couple of factors, including how effectively backups have stepped in. Rookie DLs Chris Jones and Joe Vellano have both done creditable jobs filling in for Wilfork and Kelly, but the trade for NT Isaac Sopoaga from the Eagles and the switch to a 3-4 defense should help them better defend against the run. Their ability to keep winning is also a sign of just how much of a key performer Rob Ninkovish has been as a LB/DL, as he continues to make things happen with 45 tackles and 27 hurries on the QB,  a pair of forced fumbles as well as a two recovered fumbles. A pair of Rutgers rookies, namely Logan Ryan and Duron Harmon, are going to have to step up big in the secondary when they face young Mr. Newton, as well as the not so young Mr. Manning (assuming his ankle is OK) if they are to have hopes of beating either of them, especially if they are still without Aquib Talib.

I suppose I shouldn’t be looking past the next two weeks, but I can’t help myself. Their final five contests include home games against Cleveland and Buffalo, with road trips to Houston, Baltimore and Miami. Earlier in the year, the Texans had been building up that game to be a major event, billing it as a chance to get back at the Pats for beating them so badly last year. Given the fact that they have gotten off to a 2-7 start, the significance of the game has diminished considerably. I am sure Houston will still look at it as a chance at some redemption, but it seems unlikely to feel as important as it might have. As for the other games, I worry about Baltimore and Miami as both being places the Pats tend to not play well. I realize that the Dolphins are currently experiencing a major upheaval, but it remains a place where Brady has, at times, struggled. (Must be the heat…) Anyway, let’s say they go 4-1, in this stretch, and finish 12-4.

As I alluded to in my opening, it’s time for the Patriots to return to work, and perhaps reality, when they travel to Carolina for next week’s Monday Night game. Let’s hope that the return of Shane Vereen provides the Pats with the edge they need to go to 8-2. In the meantime, Patriots fans, get some rest, for I’m sure it will be a late night. Stay tuned…

About Jerry Ballgame

The personification of "old school", Jerry Ballgame was born in the shadow of Dr. Naismith's peach basket, and baptized in that "Dirty Water." Designated by his "Uncle" Ted, to keep an eye on things, he's here to tell everyone what his view is like from the Hub of the Universe.