New England Patriots morphing into unstoppable AFC power

Judy Battista highlights the storylines and factors to pay attention to in Week 12, beginning with the ever-evolving New England Patriots and continuing below with 10 more things to watch.

After Jonas Gray scored the second of his four touchdowns Sunday night, the press-box Googling began. The fevered search for something -- anything -- about the unknown Patriots running back and erstwhile stand-up comic was the latest testament to one of New England's most pronounced competitive advantages: its continuing ability to unveil something new even while its opponents are trying to figure out how to stop what they've already seen.

Don't get too attached to Gray and his up-from-the-practice-squad story, though. It's possible we won't hear much about him this Sunday -- and not because he was reportedly sent home from practice Friday after showing up late. The Patriots are the NFL's great shape-shifters, renowned for crafting game plans and personnel groupings to suit their opponent. In Week 7, the New York Jets -- stout up front but struggling on pass defense -- got a large helping of Shane Vereen, who caught five passes for 71 yards and two touchdowns. Timothy Wright and Brandon LaFell and Julian Edelman have had star turns. Against the Broncosin Week 9, Tom Brady keyed a passing attack that went for 333 yards and four touchdowns. Last week, Indy's Robert Mathis-less defensive line was the perfect victim for a power running game that even featured an extra offensive lineman, whose unexpected insertion confused the Colts.

The Detroit Lions, of course, are much different, and so Gray might slip back into the shadows, at least for a week -- and he might have to share future power-running duties with LeGarrette Blount, who was re-signed by the Patriots on Thursday after being released by the Steelers on Tuesday. Blount played the role of bruising back for New England last season, even putting together a performance against the Colts in last year's playoffs -- 166 yards and four touchdowns -- that closely resembled Gray's on Sunday. Blount's rejoining of the Patriots is a classic Bill Belichick move -- he added needed depth for the cold-weather stretch run by acquiring a player already well-versed in his system on the cheap.

The Lions, though, have the league's top-ranked rushing defense (68.8 yards per game), top-ranked total defense and top-ranked scoring defense. They rely heavily on that unit to keep scoring down (Detroit has not given up more than 40 points in any of its past 39 games) because the offense -- which coach Jim Caldwellcalled inconsistent this week -- has not scored 25 points or more in any game since Week 1 this season. The Lions also allow the fewest yards per carry (3.0). It would be no surprise, then, if Vereen -- typically used more often on passing downs -- is featured more than Gray or Blount this Sunday.

"The more of those guys that can be involved, the better," Brady said. "Who knows who it's going to be on a particular week? You always have a plan for what you want to do, and then when you get into the game, how that evolves based on how you're playing and what's working and what you need to adjust to, then different guys have to be ready to make those contributions. It's just too much pressure for an offense to have to go through one or two players the whole season. You're not going to be a very good offense."

The Patriots' offensive line has settled in after some early instability, and their offense, in its various forms, has been very good, indeed. They've scored at least 40 points in three straight games, and they're now the NFL's second-ranked scoring offense -- a dramatic rise from the first month, when New England managed just 16 points against the Raiders and 14 against the Chiefs. Those games seem to be from an entirely different season now, one in which the Patriots were trying to find the right combination on the line, and tight end Rob Gronkowski was getting into game shape after being brought along slowly in training camp and the preseason.

Whatever personnel packages the Patriots have rolled out over the past two months, Gronkowski has been the one constant -- a goofy, powerful, uncoverable wrecking ball marauding through opposing defenses. Another potential injury to Gronkowski might be the greatest potential threat -- other than one to Brady -- the Patriots face heading toward the playoffs.

Caldwell labeled the Patriots' attack "surgical," with Brady throwing accurately to his constantly renewed array of playmakers. But there seems to be little that is precise about Gronkowski, who remains the rollicking puppy that pops up amid the Patriots' relentlessness. His touchdown reception against the Colts -- in which he caught the ball, tucked it away, stiff-armed a defender, switched the ball to his other hand like a running back, broke tackles and then went leaping into the end zone -- was an all-in-one display of his ability. In the past three games, Brady has completed an astonishing 22 of 24 passes (91.7 percent) to Gronkowski for 325 yards and five touchdowns.

"He's obviously a great talent, just an incredible run, particularly when you look at the one he had against Indianapolis," Caldwell said. "He can catch the ball, and not only is he a fine pass-catcher, but he can also run with it after he gets it. Very, very unusual gifts that he has."

And he is just one part of a unique offense, one that rarely looks exactly the same twice.

Here are 10 more things to watch as the rest of the Week 12 schedule plays out:

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1) Might against might in Seattle. The Cardinals were the only team to beat Seattle at home last season, and this game will pit the Seahawks' top-ranked rushing offense against Arizona's third-ranked rushing defense. It's a critical matchup because Russell Wilson has gone four straight games without posting a passer rating over 100 for the first time in his career. The Seahawks are three games behind the Cardinals in the NFC West and have five straight games against opponents who are at least two games over .500. A close score going into the fourth quarter favors Arizona, which has outscored its opponents 91-32 in the final frame of games.

2) Will Peyton Manning and Co. stumble again? The surging Dolphins have the personnel to get the kind of inside pressure that foiled the Broncosagainst the Patriotsand the Rams, further testing a banged-up offensive line. The Rams knocked down 12 Peyton Manning passes Sunday, so expect the Dolphins to have their arms up. The health of Broncos pass-catchers Julius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders is critical. Just as important is whether the Dolphins can get their running game going against a Broncos defense that finally allowed a 100-yard rusher last week. The Dolphins are 6-0 when they rush at least 24 times.

3) Can the Cowboys keep Tony Romo safe? Dallas' rushing offense (which averages 153.2 yards per game, second in the league) would seem like a classic mismatch against the Giants'league-worst run defense (they're allowing 145 yards per game). But it's worth watching Tony Romo, who had a bye week to rest his injured back and who has thrown just three interceptions in his past eight games. The Cowboys need him to emerge unscathed, with just three days between the New York game and a Thanksgiving showdown with the Eagles.

4) San Francisco's fight to keep up. For drama, it's hard to beat Washington and Jay Gruden's remarkable public takedown of Robert Griffin III. But for defense, it's hard to top the San Francisco 49ers, who are ranked fourth overall and have gotten Aldon Smith back (which is more bad news for Griffin) to join with emerging rookie Chris Borland. That's good for San Francisco, because the Niners have scored fewer than 20 points in three of their past four games, and they're ranked 31st in red-zone scoring. San Francisco needs to take advantage of what should be easy wins to stay close to the Cardinals, whom they trail by three games in the NFC West, and to inch into wild-card contention.

5) Are Philip Rivers' ribs OK? The Rams' pass rush, which has helped lead St. Louis to victories over the Seahawks, 49ersand Broncos in the past five weeks, is probably going to find out. To protect Rivers, the Chargers will want to run, but just 32.1 percent of their attempts have gone for at least 4 yards, the lowest such mark in the NFL. The Raiders provided a respite for the reeling Bolts, who had lost three straight before beating Oakland last Sunday. The rest of San Diego's schedule is brutal, imperiling this squad's once-strong wild-card chances.

6) The return of last season's leading receiver. The first-place Falcons -- *really* -- have allowed seven 100-yard receiving performances this season, second-most in the NFL. And here comes Josh Gordon, fresh off a 10-game suspension, to try to revive the Browns, who went from leading the AFC North to last place in the division last week. Last season, Cleveland averaged eight points per game without Gordon and 20.9 points with him. Gordon will have to help a passing offense that ranks last in completion percentage (55.5).

7) What's wrong with the Saints? Start here: New Orleans' defense has forced three-and-out drives just 12.5 percent of the time, the worst such mark in the NFL since 2005. The Ravens go three-and-out just 13.4 percent of the time on offense, the third-best such mark in the NFL, and have the second-most running plays of at least 20 yards in the league.

8) Minnesota's one chance to upset Green Bay. It wouldn't have mattered if Adrian Peterson were available for the Vikings, because he doesn't play defense. The Packers have scored more than 50 points in back-to-back games for the first time in franchise history. Aaron Rodgers has completed 70 percent of his passes that have traveled at least 20 yards in the air and is on pace to throw 45 touchdowns against five interceptions. Meanwhile, the Vikings have just seven passing touchdowns this season. Their only real hope: get to Rodgers early and often. The Vikings are tied for third in the NFL with 30 sacks, 20 of them in the past five games.

9) A Colts team looking to get right.Indy's loss to New England -- combined with the season-ending injury to Ahmad Bradshaw -- has some Colts fans worrying about their grip on the AFC South. A bigger concern might be the defense, which has given up 526.7 yards in their last three games after yielding just 311.1 in Weeks 1 through 7. They have the NFL's worst red-zone defense. The Jaguars' offense, which has 22 giveaways this season and has been outscored by 124 points, is not yet good enough to take advantage of that, but the Colts need a solid victory to steady themselves.

10) The rising Texans. And this is why Colts fans are worried: The Texans are just a game behind them in the division, and they have the easiest remaining strength of schedule. Cincinnati's Andy Dalton has struggled this year, but he was practically perfect in a road win over the Saints last week, and he has not thrown an interception on the road in 2014. Enter J.J. Watt, who has at least one sack in each of the past five games and last week notched five tackles, one sack, three tackles for a loss, one forced fumble and a fumble recovery. Oh, and a touchdown reception.

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.

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