With Week 11 of the NFL season now complete, it has become evident that the Patriots lost a lot more than a grudge match (and the divisional lead) last Thursday night.
They also lost a berth in the playoffs, if they started today.
The disappointing loss to the Jets in overtime, combined with the results from Sunday’s action, has dropped the Pats to third in the AFC East and eighth in the conference with six games to play.
It’s hard to swallow, but there’s a month a half left and the Patriots already need help to make the playoffs. As you can imagine, I hadn’t considered that possibility prior to 11:30 p.m. on Thursday night. I should have – they simply haven’t been a good enough divisional or conference team.
Consequently, they’re on the outside looking in after 11 weeks. In the East, the Jets’ methodical fourth quarter and overtime marches in Foxborough evened the season series between the teams at one, removing that vital piece of leverage from the Patriots (winners in Week 2). The win, in effect, gave New York not only the division lead, but a two game advantage over New England.
Even if the 6-4 Patriots beat the Dolphins this weekend, and the 7-3 Jets fall victim to the undefeated Titans in Nashville, New York would retain the AFC East lead by virtue of a superior divisional record (3-1 to 3-2). In my mind, that’s a two game lead, and the Jets don’t play another divisional game for almost a month (week 15, against the Bills at home). They could hold that lead for awhile, as the Pats try to road sweep Miami and Buffalo while hoping the same two can take at least one pound of flesh from the Jets, if not two, while being on the road themselves.
The conference picture is a little less frustrating, if you’re okay with the sixth and final AFC playoff spot.
The fifth seed seems out of the question as long as the Titans hold their four game lead in the AFC South and the 6-4 Colts continue to rebound from their tough start. Indy’s drawn even in record with the Pats now, and they have the all-important head-to-head advantage thanks to their earlier 18-15 win over New England. In effect, a tie with them is a loss. As with the Jets, the Pats may be stymied because of a direct loss to a fellow playoff race-ee.
Of course, the Colts have sometimes have trouble with San Diego (this weekend’s opponent, on the road), so all hope is not lost. The Chargers notably ushered Indy from the playoffs a year ago, in their own building, after beating them in San Diego during the regular season. I have to admit, though, that after watching Philip Rivers and the 4-6 Chargers blow an eminently winnable game in Pittsburgh Sunday night, I’m not holding my breath for history to repeat itself.
So, that the sixth spot – it may end up being the Pats’ only way in. The spot is occupied now by 6-4 Baltimore, losers to the Giants on Sunday. The Ravens are already 6-3 in the AFC (second wild card tiebreaker after head-to-head), but they have Philly this weekend and Pittsburgh, Dallas and Jacksonville ahead. The Pats could overtake them on record alone, as early as this week. But again, they’re relying on help from teams like the 5-4-1 Eagles (oh, God) and the 4-6 Jaguars (oh, shit) to get there.
There’s another angle – hope for the 7-3 Steelers to falter and the Ravens to ascend to the top of the North, leaving Pittsburgh scrambling for the sixth spot (they, too, lose the H2H tiebreaker to Indy). The Pats could send them on their way with a win over the visiting Steelers in two weeks, the first of four straight games Pittsburgh will play against playoff contenders.
Let’s take a look at what the Pats are up against with six weeks left. For the Games Remaining summaries, the bold denotes teams with .500 records or better; bold underline denotes conference teams with .500 records or better.
Note: At this point, I’m not spending any time on 10-0 Tennessee (no explanation required, I hope) or 6-4 Denver (the West will almost certainly send just one team to the playoffs as the fourth seed, and the Broncos have a two game lead in that race).
Also, you can refresh your memory about the various tiebreakers by clicking here.
3-1 division, 5-3 conference, H2H w/ Pats – Even
Games Remaining (6): at TEN, DEN, at SF, BUF, at SEA, MIA
2-1 division, 5-3 conference, H2H w/ Pats – Up*
Games Remaining (6): NE, at STL, at BUF, SF, at KC, at NYJ
2-2 division, 4-4 conference
Games Remaining (6): at MIA, PIT, at SEA, at OAK, AZ, at BUF
0-3 division, 3-4 conference, H2H w/ Pats – Down*
Games Remaining (6): at KC, SF, MIA, at NYJ, at DEN, NE
* = one game remaining in season series.
6-1 conference, H2H w/ Pats – Pending
Games Remaining: CIN, at NE, DAL, at BAL, at TEN, CLE
2-2 conference, H2H w/ Pats – Up
Games Remaining (6): at SD, at CLE, CIN, DET, at JAX, TEN
6-3 conference, H2H w/Pats – N/A
Games Remaining (6): PHI, at CIN, WAS, PIT, at DAL, JAX
Week 12; 6-4 New England at 6-4 Miami
For the third straight week, the Patriots face a division opponent with a record identical to theirs, in a game with playoff implications. Nobody considered that possibility when we were talking about New England’s “easy” schedule this spring.
Obviously, this is a must-win for the Patriots, in a stadium that has often found them lacking. A Miami win could harden the third-place cement around New England in the competitive East, with a losing record in both division (2-3) and conference (4-5) play with only five weeks remaining and only three AFC teams – Pittsburgh, Oakland and division rival Buffalo – left on their schedule.
It could leave them as one of those sad, regretful fringe squads that spend the last weekend of the season hoping for a miracle, only to settle once again for grim reality.
It doesn’t yet have to be that way. I’d argue that for the most part the team has played well, all things considered. Had they not come up short on two or three key plays in losses to Indy and New York, we’d be having a much different conversation right now.
Thing is, we’re not, because the predominant characteristic of this Patriots’ team so far is that they will find a way to screw it up. No matter how well they play, how competitive they are, they will make a critical mistake. That’s been the difference for the Patriots, and if it’s a permanent condition they may as well pack their bags now, because they’re finished.
So that’s what we’re looking for this week – the End of an Error. A mistake-free win in Miami, plus a little help. If they get both, the next installment of If The Playoffs Started Today could have a happier ending.
Scoreboard Watching, Week 12
- 7-3 New York Jets at 10-0 Tennessee
- 5-4-1 Philadelphia at 6-4 Baltimore
- 6-4 Indianapolis at 4-6 San Diego (Sunday, 8:15, NBC)
- 1-8-1 Cincinnati at 7-3 Pittsburgh (Thursday, 8:15 p.m., NFL Network)
Scott Benson is the Editor and Co-Founder of Patriots Daily. He can be reached at [email protected].