For the first time in over a decade, the New England Patriots are not leading the AFC East in December.
In fact, they are not even in a playoff spot.
With five weeks to go in the regular season, the Patriots sit at 5-6, well back of the Buffalo Bills for the division lead and on the outside looking in at the wildcard.
Also in typical 2020 fashion, the Patriots and their fans can simultaneously be disappointed and pleased with how this season has gone.
After losing the G.O.A.T to free agency and a number of key defensive players opting out due to COVID, expectations were low going into the season. So all things considered, 5-6 is not bad.
The thing is, this team somehow should be doing both better and worse.
On the one hand, they were a yard, a COVID diagnosis, a fumble and two fourth-quarter fourth down conversions away from being 10-1.
Equally, they were a heavy rainstorm, a well-timed sack, and a missed field goal away from 2-9.
So it is somewhat fitting that they have landed in the middle at 5-6. Such is football.
But now time is running out and the playoffs are inching closer. The Patriots have five games to get themselves into position to qualify for the postseason for a 12th consecutive year.
Heading into week 13, they sit two games back of a wildcard spot (both the Colts and Dolphins are 7-4) meaning they have to win at least two more games than at least one of them down the stretch.
To make the playoffs, the Patriots will almost certainly have to win out and get to 10-6 to get a wildcard. Only four times in the last decade (Bengals in 2011, Chargers in 2013, Bills in 2017, Titans in 2019) has a team made the playoffs with less than 10 wins.
In all of those cases, the team finished 9-7. Note that it has not happened in consecutive years in over a decade.
So can the Patriots find another gear and sweep the remainder of their schedule? Let’s break it down week by week.
*For the record, before the season started, I looked at the Patriots schedule and predicted they would go 10-6, including starting 4-6 before winning out. So far, the Patriots are exactly on the pace I said they would be and have correctly predicted nine of their 11 games (I said they would beat the Broncos and lose to the Ravens). So my pre-season prediction is still possible. However, I am not necessarily sticking with that prediction given what has happened over the last 12 weeks.
Week 13 at LA Chargers
The next match-up could be a deciding one for the Patriots. If they cannot beat the 3-8 Chargers, it is hard to see them beating any of their next three opponents.
Of course, this is a Patriots team that beat strong squads like the Ravens and Cardinals, only to lose to the Broncos and Texans so maybe forget about team records.
The Chargers will be a trickier matchup for New England than records might suggest. Justin Herbert’s crew possesses the more potent offence, averaging 25.2 points per game in 2020 and had managed more than that in six straight before the Bills limited them to just 17 on Sunday.
LA also averages the third most yards per game, which is a big problem for a New England defence that has struggled all year to get off the field. However, many of those yards come through the air, which the Patriots are better at defending than the run.
Also, the Patriots had one of their best defensive showings of the season last week against Kyler Murray, coming up big when it mattered most. That group should take some confidence and momentum into week 13.
The reason the Chargers are not doing better is that their defence allows the eighth most points per game. The thing is, not only are the Patriots the sixth-lowest scoring team in the league, their offence has looked particularly out of joint the last two weeks. On Sunday, the Patriots only scored once on a drive that started on their side of the field.
This matchup could open the door for New England to get their offence rolling, but Newton is going to need to get his act together to take advantage.
Before the season started, or even two weeks ago, this looked like it would be a fairly easy win for New England. Now it could be an unnecessary grind. And loss would effectively end the Patriots season.
Prediction: Narrow Patriots win (6-6)
Week 14 at LA Rams
From one of the easiest on paper to the hardest, the Patriots get to spend the week in Los Angeles to await a critical Thursday night meeting with the currently 7-4 Rams.
Unless the game against the Chargers proves to be some kind of catalyst for a completely different offence, Newton and company will be in deep against the leagues No. 2 overall defence that only allows 297 yards per game and 19.5 points.
And given the Patriots troubles protecting Newton in key moments, Aaron Donald must be somewhere salivating.
There are two small reasons for the Patriots to be optimistic.
First, the Rams are actually the ones who have to travel for the game since they play in Arizona on week 13 and have to come home for the Thursday-nighter, while the Patriots get to hang out in Los Angeles after playing the Chargers the Sunday before. That Arizona matchup is also critical in the NFC west so the Patriots could hope for a bit of emotional burnout on the quick turnaround.
Second, while the Rams posses one of, maybe the most threatening defence in the league, their offence leaves something to be desired. They gain a lot of yards, both through the air and on the ground, but that does not translate all that well into points. Since week five, they have averaged just 21 points per game. Still better than the Patriots, but hardly an overwhelming number.
Two of the last three games, Houston excepted, the Patriots defence has looked considerably better. If they can keep their level up, or even improve, and keep the Rams offence in check, maybe just maybe Newton can muster enough magic to pull off an upset. But based on what we are seeing that seems like a big ask from the New England offence.
It is worth noting that the Patriots are 2-2 in prime time this season, having won their last two (and were a yard away from 3-1 had they punched it in in week two). The Rams are 3-1 and are also 3-1 in SoFi Stadium, although they suffered their first loss in the new building just last week.
Prediction: Rams win a low-scoring affair (6-7)
Week 15 at Miami Dolphins
We are really getting into the territory now of making predictions from a long way out and a lot of factors can change between now and then. So take the remaining matchups, analysis, and predictions with a grain of salt.
Normally when these two teams meet in December, it is the Dolphins looking to play spoiler for the Patriots. This time around, there could be a ton riding on this game as the Dolphins are one of the teams the Patriots need to catch to grab a wildcard spot.
Or, if the previous two games go badly, it could be the Patriots turn to play spoiler.
This will be the first of three divisional matchups to close out the regular season for New England. Round one with Miami went well for the Patriots, who pulled out a 21-11 victory in Foxborough back in week one.
That opening week meeting was all about the run for Patriots, who went for over 200 yards on the ground including all three of their scores. Newton himself managed 75 and two touchdowns.
It was also the fewest points allowed by the Patriots defence all year.
How things have changed since, as New England’s offence has scarcely looked as functional as it did on that sunny September afternoon while the Dolphins have benefitted from some Fitzmagic before the Tua Tagovailoa era began. It is the first time in over a decade that the Dolphins lead the Patriots in the division in December.
The Dolphins are one of the few teams in the league that ranks below the Patriots in total offence, although they do outscore them on average by about four points. The Dolphins are also one of the worst rushing teams in the league, a tactic which many teams have used to great success against the Patriots this season.
Neither team passes all that well either, with both ranking in the bottom quarter league-wide in pass yards per game.
However, the Dolphins have posted 20-plus points in all but two games this season, one being that week one loss to New England.
Once again, this meeting could shape up to be a bit of a defensive grind as the two defences are among the lowest-scoring in the league.
What makes this matchup difficult to predict is we are not totally sure who the Dolphins quarterback will be.
Brian Flores says if Tua is healthy, he is the guy. But he missed last week due to injury and who knows what could happen the next two weeks.
The Patriots may actually want Tagovailoa. First of all, in his three starts this season, his numbers got worse each game. Secondly, Patriots fans likely feel sick at the memory of last season’s arguably dynasty-ending week 17 loss at the hands of Ryan Fitzpatrick.
And of course, Belichick eats rookie quarterbacks for breakfast. He’s 20-6 in his career against them.
Not to mention Fitzpatrick is playing great, arguably better than Tagovailoa. Tua also takes a lot of sacks, an area where the Patriots have struggled but have been steadily making progress over recent weeks. They would love the opportunity to get to a quarterback who struggles with evasion.
It is always important to note in this matchup that the game is taking place in Miami, where the Patriots have historically struggled. Was that a Tom Brady thing? Or does the Miami jinx lie with Belichick.
At the very least, after years in the NFC south, Newton should not be bothered by the conditions.
Prediction: Patriots win (7-7)
Week 16 home vs Buffalo Bills
So much in this matchup depends on where these two teams stand in the playoff picture.
If the Bills have already clinched the division, they could take this matchup lightly and rest some starters since they have nothing to play for (it seems extremely unlikely that the Bills will sneak in to grab the top seed or even the second seed and the two teams ahead of them, the Chiefs and Titans, own the tiebreaker so the Bills, assuming they win the division, are pretty locked into the fourth seed).
If the Patriots are eliminated, who knows how much effort they put in.
However, where this becomes really interesting is if either the Bills have not clinched the division (they are only one game up on the Dolphins, who they meet in week 17) and/or the Patriots are still in contention.
The Bills escaped with a win in the first meeting courtesy of a Newton red zone fumble as time ticked down in the fourth quarter back in week eight. After that game-costing error, Newton did not turn the ball over in his next three games. Buffalo will not be able to count on him doing it again.
Also, there was that awful onside kick attempt that gave the Bills great field position which they turned into points. Belichick will not give them that opportunity again.
The Bills have been erratic this season. They started on fire before having an extremely shaky run which included a pair of blowout losses followed by games that should never have been close against the Jets and Patriots. Then they rebounded to crush the Seahawks, only to lose on the Hail Murray the following week.
So it is hard to predict which Bills roll into Foxborough.
If history is any indicator, last season the Bills played the Patriots tough in the first meeting in Buffalo, although they lost, only to fall flat in a game that decided the division in New England in December.
While the division likely will not be on the line this time, at least not between the Patriots and Bills, a lot could still be determined. The Patriots could be playing for their lives while the Bills are more likely to be looking ahead to the playoffs than padding their regular season record, especially if the Patriots knocked off the Dolphins in week 15 which would be a huge boost to the Bills.
Putting unknown playoff factors aside, the Bills rank mid-tier in terms of both offence and defence this season. Josh Allen has shown that he is capable of taking advantage of weak secondaries, like when he dropped 44 points on the Seahawks, including 415 passing yards. But he also goes through cold patches like in October when the Bills went three straight games scoring under 20 points, including just 18 against the Jets. The Jets!!
And the Patriots secondary, even with the improvement last week of the front seven, is still the strength of the defence.
But when these two met on Nov. 1, Newton actually out-threw Allen, which is saying something this season (and not good Allen). The two teams were almost even yard-for-yard, which given the overall strength of these two teams, is a bigger credit to the quality of New England’s defence in the matchup.
Although to cut the Bills some slack, that game was played in the rain which limited their passing attack.
Good weather would go a long way to helping the Bills, but Foxborough in November is never exactly friendly.
If there is one thing that can be said about this matchup four weeks away, it is that the Patriots will not make the same dumb choices they did in week eight. The Bills are going to have to take it from them. But if Buffalo already has the division crown, will sheer hatred of New England be enough motivation?
Prediction: Patriots win (8-7)
If the Bills have not clinched their playoff spot, the Bills win. If they have, Patriots win. Odds are Bills will be in at this point so Patriots will squeak this one out.
Week 17 home vs New York Jets
The biggest piece of intrigue going into this match-up could be whether or not the Jets are still winless.
The Jets played the Patriots surprisingly tight in their Monday night matchup in week nine. But this time they are in Foxborough and those matchups have not been as close in recent years.
If the Jets are winless and the Patriots are out, the Jets may actually have a chance to catch New England napping.
But if the Patriots have something to play for, this could get ugly. Belichick, McDaniels, and Newton, who if the Patriots do not make the playoffs will probably be playing his last game in navy and silver, will pull out all the stops to crunch the Jets and hopefully sneak into the playoffs.
It is also worth mentioning that their Monday-night nail-biter saw Joe Flacco at quarterback, who is one of those players who just always seems to bring his A-game against New England, whereas Sam Darnold’s Patriot nightmares are well known.
Prediction: Patriots win (9-7)
Winning out is not impossible, but also not probable. Given the erratic play of the Patriots, losing out seems almost as likely.
Considering the strength of their schedule and the form of both the Patriots and their respective opponents, a 4-1 record down the stretch seems like the best-case scenario (with 3-2 being highly possible, the Bills game is really a toss-up).
A 9-7 record is unlikely to be enough to get into the playoffs. The fact that they have a game against the Dolphins helps the Patriots’ cause, but even a win there only closes the gap, it does not eliminate it.
Even if New England does win out, they need at least one of the teams ahead of them to go under .500 down the stretch.
Now, to give Patriots fans hope, the Browns, who currently lead the wildcard, have a rather difficult schedule which includes matchups against the Steelers, Titans and Ravens. The Dolphins still have a tussle with the Chiefs while the Colts have to deal with the Steelers.
And the Patriots own the tiebreaker against the Ravens and Raiders, who also are currently battling to get into a wildcard.
A lot of things are going to have to go right for the Patriots to sneak into the playoffs. The elements exist. But given the way things have gone for the Patriots this season, both on and off the field, New England fans might want to prepare themselves for an unusually long offseason.