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After Cruising, Patriots Under Pressure in Second Half of Season

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Matthew J. Lee/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

We're on to the second half.

While the bye week didn't perfectly divide the 2019 regular season in two for the Patriots, the nine games they've already played may wind up being a solid halfway point for a team that still has no excuses for playing anything fewer than 10 the rest of the way (seven regular season, plus three in the playoffs).

The unofficial first half of the season ended on a sour note, a 37–20 loss to the Ravens which may or may not have exposed the Patriots as somewhat of a paper tiger. Everyone knew that the real season began in Baltimore after eight matchups of mostly uninspiring opponents who seemingly got worse by the week.

Still, New England is 8–1, firmly in control of the division and in good shape to finish atop the conference and earn the No. 1 overall seed in the AFC playoffs.

In order to maintain this pace, the Patriots can't afford another effort like the one against the Ravens, who, at 7–2, are just a game back of New England in the conference standings and in possession of the head-to-head tiebreaker.

The entire roster should be on notice, but the spotlight will shine brighter on several players the rest of the way, beginning Sunday in Philadelphia for a rematch of Super Bowl LII with the Eagles. Here's who's under the most pressure to deliver for New England in the (unofficial) second half of the season.

Dont'a Hightower, Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins and the Rest of the 'Boogeymen'

If you're going to give yourself a nickname, you'd best deliver. If you're going to create a T-shirt based on said nickname, you HAVE to deliver.

New England's linebacker corps anointed themselves the "Boogeymen" after defeating Washington in Week 5, and the name took on even greater meaning following a trouncing of the Jets in Week 6 in which New York quarterback Sam Darnold said he was "seeing ghosts" while wearing a microphone on "Monday Night Football."

Of course, Washington and the Jets are two of the very worst teams in football. As are the Dolphins, Giants and Browns, who are among the other opponents New England beat up on in September and October.

The entire defense was a letdown against the Ravens, though Hightower himself still had a great game with a team-leading 13 tackles. But the group failed to contain Baltimore quarterback Lamar Jackson — only Lawrence Guy was credited with a sack of the MVP candidate — and the road gets no easier. Each of New England's next four opponents is equipped with dual-threat quarterbacks of their own.

All-time great defenses have to show up in all moments, not just pad their stats against bad teams.

Mohamed Sanu

Sanu is the last man standing in a game of musical chairs at receiver for New England which at different points this season featured Demaryius Thomas, Josh Gordon and Antonio Brown.

So far, so good for Sanu, whose 10 catches for 84 yards and a touchdown against the Ravens were better than any single game performance in terms of both catches and yardage this season by any of the other three. Clearly, Sanu is already in the vaunted Tom Brady "Circle of Trust."

But Gordon, now with the Seahawks, earned himself some targets in big spots in his debut for Seattle last week. Thomas has proven he still has tread on his tires with the Jets, and while Brown remains unemployed for myriad reasons, the point remains: Sanu has to prove he's a reliable option for Brady so as not to overwork Julian Edelman.

The bye week hopefully provided Sanu, who hasn't been in Foxboro for even a month, plenty of time to get even more accustomed to the offense.

"It definitely gives those guys a chance to catch up a little bit," Bill Belichick said when asked about the benefits of the bye for newer players.

Isaiah Wynn

We don't know for sure yet that Wynn will return from injured reserve once eligible in Week 12 against the Cowboys, but all signs continue to point in the direction of activation.

Wynn, who will have missed 24 of a possible 26 regular season games in his career by the time he can take the field against Dallas, is under pressure beyond his presumed duties at left tackle — where New England desperately needs him to protect Brady's blindside, as Marshall Newhouse has been below average at best during Wynn's absence.

Wynn needs to prove that he can stay healthy for a prolonged stretch of time, or else the Patriots may be forced to address left tackle again this off-season. After missing his entire rookie season in 2018 due to a torn Achilles suffered in the preseason, Wynn has missed time this season with a toe injury. He's under team control through the 2022 season at a reasonable rate, but what good is that if he can't stay on the field?

New England moved on from the oft-injured Dominique Easley, a first-round pick like Wynn, after just two seasons. And Easley played in 22 of a possible 32 games for the Patriots.

Sony Michel

Michel, a first-round pick like Wynn in 2018, has already paid dividends for the Patriots in the form of his contributions to the team which won Super Bowl LIII.

Since then, it's been a sophomore slump for Michel, who ranks 43rd among 45 runners qualified for the league rushing title with an average of 3.3 yards per carry. He hasn't been helped by a subpar New England offensive line — not to mention the loss of fullback James Develin — but a running back drafted as highly as Michel should be able to cover up at least some of the mistakes up front.

Perhaps more frustrating with Michel has been his lack of contributions in the passing game. In nine games played, he has seven catches on 11 targets for 63 yards, nearly identical to the seven catches on 11 targets for 50 yards he had as a rookie.

With James White and Rex Burkhead in the fold, it's not as though the Patriots need Michel to be LaDanian Tomlinson or Marshall Faulk in terms of catching the ball out of the backfield. But something, anything above the level he's playing at now will be a boon for the New England offense in the second half.

"The more versatile you are, the more you can do, then that's going to enhance your ability to do more things," Nick Caserio, director of Patriots player personnel, said of Michel during training camp.

Every Pass Rusher Left on the Roster

Whether Michael Bennett was a good fit in New England is another question for another time. His first two performances with the Cowboys — who, by the way, head to Gillette Stadium a week from Sunday — indicate that he's still a capable NFL pass rusher, regardless of scheme.

Bennett had a sack and four QB hits in a 37–18 win for the Cowboys over the Giants in his debut and followed that up with two more QB hits last week against the Vikings. He played in 42 and 45 snaps, respectively, more than he did in any one game for the Patriots prior to his exile.

That means it's time for everyone else along the outside to chip in in Bennett's place, picking up the slack for what he was supposed to be in Foxboro: a fearsome edge rusher. The Patriots still rank fourth in the NFL in sacks, with 32, but no single player on the defense is worth game planning for, like Bennett could have been.

Can Chase Winovich take on a greater role than sub rusher? Can Deatrich Wise Jr. show some of the same promise he did as a rookie in 2017 and again in 2018? Can Adam Butler continue to be among the more versatile defensive linemen in the league and line up more on the outside?

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