Most would agree that the New England Patriots are playing with fire the way they've fallen behind early in games, creating a situation with limited margin for error in the second half. They've been able to overcome it the last two weeks, but can it continue?

That's one of the main questions surrounding the team, along with the future of lead running back Stevan Ridley, who was a healthy scratch Sunday in Houston.

After reviewing the 34-31 win over the Texans, it clearly wasn't the Patriots' best effort, but one thing that resonated was the excellence of the coaching staff in terms of making adjustments. A big part of the reason the offense exploded in the second half was because of a change in approach -- which reflected how the coaching staff is always thinking.

The players still have to execute it, of course, and they deserve the bulk of the credit.

At the same time, the brainpower of the staff is one of themes of the week.

Q. Hi Mike, much was made earlier in the season about the Patriots' third-quarter struggles, and many pointed to the coaching and how that needed to be an area of improvement. With the Pats outscoring their opponents 42-14 in the third quarter of the three games after the bye, is it safe to say it is coaching adjustments or are they just coming out with more energy after the half? -- Chase W. (New Canaan, Conn.)

A. Chase, I thought the role of coaching adjustments was decisive on Sunday in Houston. For those who appreciate the X's and O's of the game, it was pretty neat to watch how the Patriots manipulated matchups to create advantageous situations for their best players to make plays. The two things that stood out to me in the second half were going empty with two-back personnel (creating a matchup against the Texans' base D) and creating an "open" side of the field by aligning both receivers to one side and attacking the "open" side in the passing game with tight end Rob Gronkowski and running back Shane Vereen matched up against linebackers and safeties. They also had some big runs against the Texans' nickel defense out of their two-TE and two-back groupings. It was just another reminder to me that the Patriots' coaching staff is always thinking and one of the best in the game.

Q. Hi Mike, love your work. The Patriots' problems this year have been well documented (Hernandez, Gronk, Wilfork, Mayo, etc.). They're certainly not the Pats we're all used to seeing, and yet in spite of all of these issues and more they sit at 9-3 and look to be tooling up for what I hope is another deep playoff run. So my question is this: Does Bill Belichick win coach of the year? -- Liam (Birmingham, UK)

A. Liam, I put this coaching job right up there with 2008 when the Patriots lost quarterback Tom Brady for the season. I think he should warrant serious consideration for the award, but ultimately don't see him beating out other candidates such as Andy Reid (Chiefs) and Ron Rivera (Panthers). I think one of the things working against Belichick is the "Brady Factor" -- many people have the view that Brady's excellence helps mask some other deficiencies. There is some truth to that, but I don't think that gives Belichick and the staff enough credit for their work at all levels of the roster.

Q. Mike, with all due respect, I think you're being a bit melodramatic about Stevan Ridley being at a crossroads with the organization. Regardless of what BB said on the radio Monday morning, Ridley being inactive was punitive and intended to send a message to the player that this is what happens when he messes up like he has been. There's no way BB is going to say that in public, obviously. If he's inactive next week and the week after, then maybe we're looking at something more, but Ridley didn't exactly look crestfallen on the sidelines Sunday. Beyond all of that, he's the best pure RB on the team and there were times Sunday when it was obvious not having him was hurting the team at least to some degree. -- Matt (Oklahoma City)

A. I respect the opinion, Matt. At the same time, I stand by what I wrote. I know some view it as a break-him-down-and-build-him-back type of situation with Ridley. I don't see it that way, as I think the days of Ridley as the lead back, logging 45 percent of the offensive snaps, are probably over. I'm interested to see if that gut feeling is correct.

Q. Bill Belichick said the comments from Antonio Smith were "a league matter." Does that mean it's up to the league to discipline Smith for slandering the Patriots? -- Bo (Oakland, Calif.)

A. Correct, Bo, and the league doesn't have any plans to do so. I didn't think the comments were worthy of attention or a response because they didn't make sense to me. As Tedy Bruschi said, they came across as frustration from a player who had just lost his 10th game in a row.

Q. Mike, you mirrored my confusion as to why the Pats were playing so much zone coverage on Sunday after having played man very reliably this season. I was also baffled as to why they ran so many 3-4 fronts, with Chandler Jones and Joe Vellano as the ends. I know we also talk about them being "multiple" rather than a 3-4 or 4-3 team, but for the last couple of years it's been far more 4-3. So you're A) Asking young guys -- including most of the LBs -- to play a scheme they're less familiar with, and B) Requires Jones, Vellano, Isaac Sopoaga/Sealver Siliga to be on the field. We've got more out of Jones and Vellano than we had any right to expect, but this doesn't really -- to quote Bill -- seem to give the team the best chance to win on Sundays. -- Martin W. (London)

A. Martin, I agree when it comes to this specific plan coverage-wise. They seemed to go into the game thinking one thing, before making an adjustment to more man coverage in the second half. That happens every week and is, from this viewpoint, the sign of a good coaching staff to correct something that isn't working. Of course, we can ask the question "Why did they think it was the best decision in the first place?" and that's fair. They obviously have a lot more information than we do -- injury-wise etc. -- which probably factors into the reason they planned to do so initially. On the 3-4, that's essentially what they played against Carolina and they did a good job stopping the run that night (other than QB scrambles). So I don't think it was necessarily a bad decision against Houston -- it was just more about execution, getting off blocks and making tackles.