The New England Patriots’ season has been an interesting one to say the least. This team has looked like they can go toe-to-toe with the best the game has to offer, and other times they’ve looked just downright bad. It’s been a rollercoaster of emotions, one that has the Patriots sitting at 4-4, good for 8th place in the current AFC standings.
I’ll be honest, just two weeks ago I probably would have said the Patriots had a 10% chance to make the playoffs. They were 2-4, fresh off a devastating loss to the Dallas Cowboys in OT. Their only wins were against the Jets and Texans, with the Houston win being as ugly as they come. That’s the beauty of the NFL though.
In just two weeks a team can go from being dead in the water to alive and well. That is the current situation for the Patriots. Call me crazy, but the door to the postseason (which just two weeks ago looked almost completely closed), looks like it has swung wide open for New England. I now firmly believe New England not only CAN make the playoffs, but WILL make the playoffs. There are a few reasons why.
The AFC Field Has Weakened
Without even talking about the Patriots as a team, one huge reason why I believe the playoffs are firmly in New England’s future is that the AFC playoff field is not as strong as we originally believed.
Before the start of the season, I would have probably said the AFC overall was the better conference. The NFC looked top heavy, while the AFC looked like it had many of the best teams football had to offer.
Fast forward to Week 9, and that just doesn’t seem to be the case. There are some good teams in the conference grant you, but besides Buffalo I think they are all very flawed and beatable in their own ways.
AFC standings/seedings after Week 8: pic.twitter.com/2AOlRxDvdL— Sal Capaccio 🏈 (@SalSports) November 2, 2021
Looking at the current standings, I’d say there are still 12 teams “in the hunt” for the playoffs in the AFC. Apologies to the Jaguars, Texans, Dolphins, and Jets, but your chances are slim to none. Besides Buffalo, the other 10 teams New England has to fight for the postseason are all fundamentally flawed and can definitely be leapfrogged by the Patriots.
Baltimore and Cincinnati have looked good this season, but both have defenses that are not super reliable. The Bengals still have issues with their offensive line, and with Baltimore, let’s face it, make Lamar Jackson sit in the pocket and throw and this offense looks average.
The Raiders have been a surprise, but they have an interim coach, and with the latest shocking Henry Ruggs news, their offense is becoming thin. This is also around the time the Raiders like to collapse.
The Titans were looking dangerous, but now Derrick Henry is probably done for the year, which really kills this team’s potential. The Chargers were looking scary as well, but their run defense is atrocious and they’ve now lost back to back games to the Ravens and Patriots.
The Chiefs have looked bad, with no signs of improvement on the horizon and a brutal schedule coming up. The Broncos already look like their punting on the season sending Von Miller to the Rams. Even with Miller they didn’t look all that great of late. The Steelers have a great defense, but they also have Big Ben still playing QB. Do with that what you will.
So as you can see, outside of the Bills who look legit, none of these teams look like a lock to make the playoffs. The current playoff picture will look very different in just a few weeks time. Expect New England to ascend into one of these spots.
The Team is Beginning to Find its Form
Aside from the competition around them getting weaker, the Patriots themselves are getting stronger. Every week the team looks better and better, specifically when looking at the offense. Belichick and McDaniels are beginning to trust rookie Mac Jones with the offense more and more as the weeks go by. We are finally starting to see Jones push the ball down the field more, which has been very encouraging to see.
The running game has returned after being dormant for a few weeks. Damien Harris in his last three games has rushed 55 times for 287 yards (5.22 YPC) and 4 TDs. The re-emergence of Harris and the running game has also made life easier for Jones and the offense. It has taken some of the pressure off of Mac, allowing him to find his rhythm passing and not have to force as many throws.
One big sign of improvement is the number of turnovers decreasing. In their first five games, the Patriots turned the ball over 9 times, which was very uncharacteristic for a Belichick coached team. In the three games since, New England has only turned the ball over 3 times. They’ve cleaned up their game, and it shows on the field. It’s a lot easier to win close games like they did against the Chargers when you win the turnover battle.
The big thing really is Mac Jones steady improvement. He’s been getting better and better, and as a result so too have they Patriots weapons. Jakobi Meyers has quietly been one of the best receivers in the NFL statistically this season. Kendrick Bourne and Nelson Agholor are getting more consistent looks. Hunter Henry has been a TD scoring machine.
After a sluggish start, the Patriots are looking good and are only getting better each and every week.
The Schedule Ahead Looks Promising
Now looking ahead, I wouldn’t say the Patriots have an “easy” schedule, more a manageable one. They possess a schedule that has a lot of winnable games against some shaky teams.
The toughest test remaining is obviously those two matchups against the Buffalo Bills. There’s a very good chance they lose at least one of the two meetings, if not both. Besides Buffalo, the pastures are quite green.
You have winnable games in the Browns (4-4) and Colts (3-5). Both those teams have star running backs, which seems to have been a problem for the Patriots in recent history. Cleveland will almost entirely depend on how healthy they are when they face the Patriots.
Then, you have the very winnable category, which contains the Panthers (4-4), Falcons (3-4), and Titans (6-2). I really don’t value Tennessee that high without Henry, and think they don’t matchup well with New England without their star back. They have the Jaguars (1-6) and Dolphins (1-7) at the end of the season; extremely winnable.
That leaves you with the not so winnable games, both against Buffalo. Maybe I’m putting too much value on the Bills, but I just think they are a top tier NFL team and have mostly looked the part all year.
My official prediction is that the Patriots are going to go 6-3 the rest of the year. That would give them with a 10-7 record. In this AFC playoff field, 10 wins gets you in.
Just like that, the door to the playoffs is officially opened, and the race to the postseason is fully on.
Photo: (Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
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