FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The five biggest questions facing the Patriots in the second half of the season:
1. Will the offense find its post-Moss groove?
Quarterback Tom Brady is completing 63 percent of his passes this season, although he's been below his average in the four games since Randy Moss was traded -- 61.4, 59.4, 59.3 and 52.8 percent. Brady's accuracy and decision-making are his trademarks, and if those are not in place, the offense will continue to struggle. However, not all of that falls at Brady's feet; the team's pass-catchers must also consistently get open, which has been a challenge since Moss, who often commanded double-teams, was traded.
2. How much will the 32nd-ranked third-down defense improve?
The Patriots are losing the time-of-possession battle 33:09 to 26:51 this season, and one of the main reasons is an inconsistent third-down defense that ranks last in the NFL with opponents converting 48.1 percent of the time. With the Patriots struggling to get off the field, that has extended opponents' drives and is one of the team's biggest weaknesses. One reason the Patriots have overcome it in their 6-2 start is that they've come up with the critical stop. But one wonders how long they'll be able to continue to rely on that in the second half of the season.
3. Will the team be healthy down the stretch?
The key question for any team in the NFL. It's cliche, for sure, but the healthiest team that builds momentum heading into the playoffs is usually the most dangerous. When quarterback Tom Brady shows up for the first time with a foot injury on the Week 10 injury report, and then misses a practice, it shoots near the top of the list in terms of health-related concerns for the team.
4. With so many young contributors, will the "rookie wall" be a factor?
The Patriots are one of the youngest teams in the NFL, relying on rookies in either starting or close-to-starting roles. At this time of year, colleges are coming to the end of their regular seasons, while NFL teams have just hit the midpoint. How young players such as cornerback Devin McCourty, tight ends Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski, inside linebacker Brandon Spikes and others respond to the longer season figures to play a significant role in the team's success.
5. How much will the loss of kicker Stephen Gostkowski hurt?
Bill Belichick often says that games often come down to one or two plays, and if it's a field goal, the Patriots generally knew they were in good hands with Stephen Gostkowski. But with Gostkowski out for the year, will Shayne Graham be able to come through? Graham had one of the worst games of his career in last year's playoffs, leading Bengals coach Marvin Lewis to say he needs to overcome his "demons." The Patriots are relying on him being able to do so, especially if he's kicking in the playoffs.