Commentary

Key stretch includes 3 divisional games

Updated: November 2, 2009, 1:24 PM ET
By Mike Reiss | ESPNBoston.com

Former Patriots safety Rodney Harrison wasted little time getting from Point A to B on the football field, and he has a similar style in his current role as a football analyst for NBC.

Assessing his former team, Harrison said bluntly: "These next five games will tell a lot about the state of the New England Patriots."

When the NFL schedule was released this spring, the upcoming five-game stretch looked like the decisive part of the Patriots' slate. That has held true to form.

It starts with Miami at home, then Indianapolis on the road. A rematch with the Jets at home will be followed by a Monday night tilt at New Orleans. Then comes a trip to Miami.

The five-game stretch is important because it includes three division games that will go a long way toward the team's top goal of winning the AFC East, and the other two are against elite squads that are currently undefeated.

The way Harrison sees it, the Patriots' bye came at the perfect time.

"That gives them two weeks to really start preparing, not just for the Wildcat and the Dolphins, but it also gives them a head start on the Colts as well. I'm sure the coaches took the extra time to do that," he said.

Harrison shared his thoughts on the key dynamics of each matchup for the 5-2 Patriots:

Patriots-Dolphins (Nov. 8, 1 ET at New England; Dec. 6, 8:20 ET at Miami): "The Dolphins came in there last year and kicked the Patriots' butt with the Wildcat offense. So that's the first thing, dealing with the different elements of the Wildcat -- run, pass, option. So many forms of misdirection make it so difficult. They're a young, hungry team with good experienced veterans. They keep coming and they don't stop. Bart Scott and the Jets can say what they want to say, but the Dolphins could easily be 5-2 and with the Patriots at the top. They had both the Colts and Saints beat, so they've shown they can play with some of the big dogs. What they haven't shown is the ability to finish them, and that's why they're 3-4."

Patriots at Colts (Nov. 15, 8:20 ET): "That's pretty straight forward. You're dealing with Peyton Manning and all the different weapons he has. One thing that stands out is the new weapons like [rookie receiver] Austin Collie and [receiver] Pierre Garcon. Then, of course, you still have Dallas Clark and Reggie Wayne. I think the offensive line has been solid. While they gave up a few sacks to the 49ers [on Sunday], they've generally been playing great football. In the end, it still comes down to Peyton Manning. He's just been phenomenal this season. He didn't have a great day against the 49ers, but at the midway point it's between him and [Drew] Brees for MVP of the league. Then you add the Bob Sanders element -- when they face the Patriots he'll have a couple of games under his belt -- and that will help elevate their defense to another level."

Jets at Patriots (Nov. 22, 4:15 ET): "Regardless of what goes on with the Jets, they always play the Patriots like it's a playoff game. These teams have a distinct dislike for one another. The Jets talk a lot, and that can put them in a vulnerable position where they have to perform. But they feel like they have the ingredients and the blueprint to get to Tom Brady. They'll pressure him and pressure him, which is how they came out and attacked him in Week 2. Yet the difference now is that Brady is not the same quarterback as he was in Week 2."

Patriots at Saints (Nov. 30, 8:30 ET): "This is kind of the same elements you have in place with the Colts -- all those different weapons. Drew Brees is having a great year. He's rarely hit and shows tremendous mobility inside and outside the pocket. He doesn't have the credentials of Peyton Manning and Tom Brady in terms of Super Bowl rings, but he can no longer take a backseat to them. He is right there. This is the year he has to get it done, as it's his best chance. The other part of it is what their defense is doing. Historically, that has been the trouble spot for them. It isn't this year."

When ESPN analyst Trent Dilfer breaks down the five-game stretch, he does so in two tiers. He said most important are contests against the Dolphins and Jets because "you always want to establish dominance in your division", then comes the Colts and Saints.

With that in mind, Dilfer sees the Dolphins as a tough matchup because they are a "tough, really physical football team, especially on offense. So it will be a nice test for a young defense, first with defending the Wildcat, and overall how they match up physically."

Dilfer also isn't reading too much into the Jets' recent struggles, and believes they'll "give everyone problems. While they're not in the class of the Patriots, they gave them problems the first time."

As for the Colts, Dilfer points out it's less about the scheme and more centered on Manning's terrific ability to execute. With the Saints, "they are so versatile on offense they can expose your weakness."

Put it all together and it's a five-game stretch that figures to define the Patriots' regular season.

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPN Boston. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.

Mike Reiss

ESPN New England Patriots reporter

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