Tom Brady has Patriots positioned for another postseason push

After a shaky start to the season, Tom Brady has the Patriots in a familiar position, ready to compete for a postseason success. AP Photo/Jeffrey T. Barnes

The New England Patriots finished the first half of the season with a 7-2 record. Here’s a look at how they have fared, and what’s ahead.

First-half rewind: After a 1-2 start, the Patriots have won six in a row and are well positioned to make their annual charge at what they hope will be a deep run into January. It was almost like watching two different teams between the first three games and the past six. A big part of that was the return of receiver Julian Edelman from a four-game NFL suspension and integration of trade acquisition Josh Gordon into the offensive attack. The defense has been up and down, but is trending in the right direction after its best performance of the season against the Packers. Grade: Above average

What’s the biggest factor for the Patriots to make a deep playoff run? Keeping quarterback Tom Brady out of harm’s way. The Patriots have generally done a good job of that (No. 5 ranking in fewest sacks per pass play), with Brady also protecting himself at times by getting rid of the football. At 41, he remains one of the best in the game and is the one player who, if injured, would alter the team’s outlook in the most dramatic way.

MVP: James White, step right up. The ever-reliable running back is second in the AFC with 61 receptions, and when the Patriots faced a shortage of players at the position in Weeks 7-9, it was impressive to watch him morph from “passing back” to between-the-tackles grinder and still find success. He is one of the most underrated players in the NFL, shining in his first year as a Patriots captain.

Biggest surprise: Jason McCourty's emergence as the No. 2 cornerback. When the likable, 10-year veteran was playing deep into the fourth preseason game, it sparked media-based questions as to whether he would even make the team. Then he played six snaps in the season opener, which came after the club reduced his salary to reflect his place as the No. 4 option on the depth chart. But when Eric Rowe was benched two series into Week 2, McCourty stepped in and he’s been the starter opposite Stephon Gilmore since.

Hurdle to overcome: Getting Rob Gronkowski back to being Rob Gronkowski. The All-Pro tight end has 29 receptions for 448 yards and one touchdown, which is well off his pace from past seasons. He has missed two games and has been listed on the injury report with two different ailments -- back and ankle. The Patriots have a solid arsenal of weapons without him, but when Gronkowski is on his game, he is one of the hardest players to defend and opens things up for others. So which Gronkowski will the Patriots get in the final seven games of the season?