Which straw breaks the Patriots' camel's back?

The New England Patriots' injury report reads like a who's who of household names - in New England, anyway...

Defensive mainstays in tackles Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly and weak side linebacker Jerod Mayo have all been shelved for the season - and while the Patriots sorely miss the trio, there is growing concern that the recent string of injuries to the secondary may be the death knell for New England's championship hopes.
The Team needs Talib (above) and Dennard down the stretch

Coach Bill Belichick has successfully plugged the holes left by the considerable girth of Wilfork and Kelly on the defensive line with the likes of rookies Joe Vellano and Chris Jones and with the recent acquisition of veteran tackle Isaac Sopoaga from Philadelphia...

...and while he has yet to settle on just how to deal with Mayo's weak side spot on the second level, the injury bug has bitten his secondary to the point that the team is working on the second level of the depth chart - and if it takes even one more hit, the common perception is that the Patriots could be in serious trouble.

Of course, if there is a coach in the league that has a track record of piecing together a secondary utilizing castoffs and duct tape, it's Belichick - but even he has to be wondering just how much more his defense can take before it implodes.

He made due with a combination of veteran slot corner Kyle Arrington and rookie Logan Ryan to cover for shutdown corner Aqib Talib when he went down with his chronic hip malady against the Saints a month ago, and was even cool when safety Steve Gregory suffered an acute case of floppy thumb in the win over the Steelers just before the bye as rookie Duron Harmon came on in his stead.

But then came the news that his other starting corner Alfonzo Dennard suffered a knee injury in practice just prior to the Monday night loss to the Panthers - and that was ok, too because Talib was set to return and he still had Arrington and Ryan...

...but then Talib melted down right before our eyes - also re-aggravating the hip - and Arrington suffered a groin pull, leaving just Ryan and dime corner Marquice Cole as his two corners.

Talib left for good early on the final Panthers' drive but a gimpy Arrington limped through - though he probably wishes he hadn't as he was burned by Carolina's Ted Ginn Jr. (of all people) for what turned out to be the winning score.

But for those who look at the Patriots as a team that is just one injury away from seeing their season disintegrate into mediocrity, consider the talent not necessarily on the field alone, but rather coupled with the talent wearing the headphones and the hoodie with the cut-off sleeves.

While New England isn't blowing teams out of the building, the opposite is also true.

When was the last time anyone saw the Patriots go into the last five minutes of a football game without a realistic opportunity to either build upon a lead or to have the opportunity to win the game?  Not this season. not last, and not the year before that.

One has to go clear back to November of 2010, an abysmal loss to the Browns in Cleveland to find a game that the Patriots were on the embarrassed end of fourth quarter garbage time - and then went on to win eight straight to finish the regular season.

Not even in 2011, when the Patriots had so many injury issues in their secondary that names like Nate Jones, Antwaun Molden and Sterling Moore teamed with then-corner Devin McCourty, Kyle Arrington and wide receiver Julian Edelman in a rotation that was able to help the team to the Super Bowl.

Fast forward to this coming Sunday night, and compare that 2011 depth chart to now:  McCourty and Arrington are still here, though in different capacities than what the situation dictated back then.  Edelman is an integral part of the re-tooled pass catching corps, but Jones, Molden and Moore are all out of football and in their stead are the names Logan Ryan, Marquice Cole and Duron Harmon.

But instead of McCourty and Arrington manning the corners, New England hopes that this season's dynamic duo of Talib and Dennard will be healthy and shutting down their opponent's best receivers down the stretch - and even if they aren't the talent is still better than what it was then...

...and with the best game plan coach in the business putting the schematic together, it's difficult to imagine the Patriots becoming mediocre and letting their season go down the toilet.