FOXBOROUGH — The New England Patriots rolled into the bye week after their best offensive game of the season.
Impressive, yes, but consider the opposition.
In fact, consider the opposition all season — hardly the toughest in the NFL.
The 55-31 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers last Sunday was just the latest on a soft schedule for New England. The Patriots (7-2) have played only two games against teams that had winning records going into their matchups.
Even the bye works in their favor. The Patriots can get a head start on their next two opponents, the only ones left with winning records, the Carolina Panthers (5-3) and Denver Broncos (7-1). The rest of the schedule — Houston, Cleveland, Miami, Baltimore and Buffalo — figures to provide the Patriots some momentum heading into the playoffs.
“You’re not going to win anything with seven wins. You need more than that,” coach Bill Belichick said. “So we have a lot of football left. There are a lot of things we can improve in.”
The bye gives quarterback Tom Brady and rookie receivers Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins extra time to work together. Star cornerback Aqib Talib will have more time to heal after missing the last three games with a hip injury. The defensive linemen playing bigger-than-expected roles after season-ending injuries to tackles Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly can rest and work on their teamwork.
On offense, running back Shane Vereen might play against Carolina when he’s eligible to come off the injured reserve list. The passing game is more stable now with tight end Rob Gronkowski playing the last three games after missing the first six and wide receiver Danny Amendola back from a concussion and groin injury that sidelined him four games. The line is adjusting to the loss of starting right tackle Sebastian Vollmer for the year with a leg injury.