Nearly everything has gone right for the New England Patriots over the last five weeks, including their own vastly improved play.
But they can’t let up, because if the pendulum swings in the other direction, they could fall out of the playoff picture before they know it.
The 7-4 Patriots, winners of five straight, currently are first in the AFC East and third in the conference standings. Remarkably, a team that was 2-4 after a Week 6 loss to the Dallas Cowboys could claim first place in the AFC on Sunday with a win over the Tennessee Titans coupled with a loss by the Baltimore Ravens.
A couple of weeks ago, we gave New England a “pretty good” designation as part of our midseason review. The Patriots, with an effective offense and excellent defense, now probably are better than that and have a real chance of emerging from the crowded, wide-open AFC in January.
However, as close as New England is to the top of the conference, it is almost as close to the bottom. Entering Week 12, the Patriots are only 1 1/2 games ahead of the 12th-place Denver Broncos. So, if the tables reverse over the next two weeks, New England could be 7-6 and outside of the playoffs.
But let’s stick to this week. If the Patriots lose to the Titans on Sunday and the other currently playoff-eligible AFC teams win (other than the Kansas City Chiefs, who are on their bye), New England would drop to seventh in the conference standings. At that point, the road toward the No. 1 seed and a first-round bye essentially would close.
A loss also would put even greater emphasis on the Dec. 6 Monday night game against the Bills in Buffalo, let alone the post-bye Saturday night road showdown with the surging Indianapolis Colts. The Patriots’ late-season schedule is difficult both competitively and logistically, with few, if any, baked-in victories. And who knows what variables the 17th game could introduce?