FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The starting left tackle is a no-name. The wide receiving corps features two undrafted rookies. There are no healthy fullbacks.
Are these the problems of the hapless Dolphins? The bumbling Bengals? Maybe the woeful Washington Redskins?
Nope. These are the challenges facing the unbeaten, defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots. That's the Patriots, who've outscored six foes by a staggering 190-48 count. The Pats, the team that has played one game where the margin of victory wasn't at least two touchdowns.
If you listen to many Patriots fans, their team has more holes that a high schooler's blue jeans. Oh how spoiled we've all become. Look around the rest of the NFL, where even the very best teams spring leaks in a grueling week-to-week grind of a season.
After moving to 6-0 after last Thursday night's 35-14 win over the Giants, there were plenty of smiles in the New England locker room but not in every corner. The Patriots looked tired, beat up and certainly relieved that their record remains perfect heading into a well-deserved 11-day break.
"As hard as it is to get your body ready to go (for a Thursday game) it's how big of a blessing it is after the game to be able to rest," said captain Devin McCourty. "You know, you get six weeks in and we've been going at it nonstop. You guys see us, full pads (at practice) whenever we can, working hard. So this will be a good break, just to try to get healthy, stay really locked in."
Trying to assess just where the Patriots are a little more than one-third into the season is a complicated task. It's actually understandable why fans are fretting over a team with a historically great defense but far from sterling offense or special teams units.
The first statement of fact is that the Pats remain a beast in the AFC, clearly one of the two or three favorites to play in yet another Super Bowl. That part is easy. But dig a little deeper and this team is traveling down a path that beckons everyone in the NFL, one that could make it vulnerable come playoff time. It's the survival-of-the-fittest track, which is always the most important analytic to follow in football.
Just read down the injured reserve list. The Patriots have already lost valuable center David Andrews and all-time scoring leader/kicker Stephen Gostkowski for the season. It looks like All-Pro fullback James Develin won't be back either. Young and potentially impactful lineman Isaiah Wynn (turf toe) can't return until mid-November. First-round draft pick N'Keal Harry (ankle) rounds out the key players sitting on the list. He hasn't played at all but hopefully can push Jakobi Myers and Gunner Olszewski for reps if he returns to full health.
Those are just the "major" injuries we all know about. Phillip Dorsett and Rex Burkhead couldn't post for the Giants game. Josh Gordon left the action after an ugly twist of his knee and ankle, further depleting a thin group of skill players. Patrick Chung (chest), Dont'a Hightower (shoulder), J.C. Jackson (knee) and Matt LaCosse (knee) were all forced out of the Giants game.
You get the drill.
No amount of Bill Belichick's genius or Tom Brady's potion of veteran poise and skill can save a team from a devastating rash of injuries. This team clearly isn't there yet but take away a few key performers (like Chung and Hightower) from the impressive, dominating defense and we'll have to reassess those Super Bowl beach party plans in Miami.
While no team can defend against injuries, the Pats do own a few options with the roster. One is finding some help for Brady at receiver and/or tight end. Consider that in the Super Bowl win over the Rams last February the skill position group featured All-World tight end Rob Gronkowski and secondary receivers Chris Hogan and Cordarrelle Patterson. The only impactful replacement for those three has been Gordon, and now he's banged up.
Belichick did this math, too, a few weeks back and added the talented but troubled Antonio Brown to the roster. Brown was the perfect football antidote and worth the gamble but proved to be a disaster as a human being and the plan blew up in less than two weeks.
Brown isn't coming back, even though the team is on the hook to pay him millions. It's never safe to say never in the NFL but no matter how desperate the Patriots get, they won't stoop that low again.
Instead the plan could be a trade. The Brown fiasco limited the Pats to a little less than $4 million in cap space but more room could be finagled by extending a veteran or two. Among the pending free agents on the roster are McCourty, Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins and some quarterback named Brady.
Who is out there? Minnesota should never part with Stefon Diggs but his shaky relationship with the franchise is worth monitoring. Mohamed Sanu is a third wheel behind Calvin Ridley and Julio Jones for the downtrodden Falcons and could be had for a mid-round draft pick.
These are the type of avenues Belichick and his staff will explore over the next few weeks. In the meantime, know that the Patriots can win another Super Bowl with this team as constructed. The defense is going to dominate stretches of every game, even when the schedule rises to NFL-level after next week's visit to New York to face the Jets. Brady may wear a long face after most games but he's leading a group that is averaging almost 32 points a start.
The NFL is populated by too many weak, poorly coached teams. That guarantees the Patriots a smooth path to the playoffs. From there it may just come down to who shuttles in and out of the medical tent the rest of the way.