Through nine games, there have been a number of instances when it seemed as though Patriots fans might need to temper their expectations for this season. They squeaked out a win over Buffalo. Struggled against the Jets. Didn't score a touchdown in losing to Cincinnati. And have repeatedly been depleted by substantial injuries to significant pieces.
Yet as the NFL entered Week 10 of its 17-week grind, the Patriots were exactly where they'd be if the playoffs began today: Enjoying a bye week. And feeling pretty good about their situation.
It hasn't come in the way to which New England has become accustomed over recent years, but the Pats reached their midseason siesta at 7-2, which matches the club's best record at this point since the unbeaten regular season of 2007, and which puts them in prime position within both the division and the conference. They're two games up on the Jets in the East, and half a game up on the Colts for the second-best record in the AFC overall.
That assures them of nothing, of course, and cameras caught Bill Belichick reminding his team of as much after it blew out the Steelers last Sunday. "We've got a lot of football left. Seven wins is great, but it ain't going to get anything, OK?" said the coach. "Seven wins will not get anything in this league. We need a lot more than that."
But just how many will they need? Let's take a look at the landscape facing the Patriots as they rest up and ready for their playoff push.AFC EastAfter a 3-1 start, the Dolphins appeared to be the biggest threat to the Patriots' stranglehold on the division, but then they lost four in a row and are now mired in the off-field maelstrom surrounding offensive linemen Jonathan Martin and Richie Incognito.
There's a chance that Miami's players could galvanize in an us-against-the-world sort of way, but the increased scrutiny from the media and from investigators will be too big a distraction to overcome. Their remaining schedule is relatively tough after Monday night's battle with the winless Buccaneers, and if nothing else this situation has cost them two of their starting linemen.
They don't figure to threaten the Patriots, nor do the Bills, who are 3-6 after losing four of five. They're competitive, but Buffalo's injuries and inexperience at quarterback make this more of a building year than one in which they'll truly compete for a playoff spot.
So that leaves the Jets, whose 5-4 mark currently positions them as the AFC's second wild-card team, and who deserve credit for putting themselves in the mix. They've yet to win more than one in a row, but they also haven't lost more than one in succession - but after beating the Patriots and Saints in the past three weeks, they deserve to be considered seriously.
Like New England, New York is off today, then over the final seven weeks the Jets have what figures to be a slightly easier schedule than the Patriots. On top of four common challenges, the Jets host the Dolphins (4-4) and Raiders (3-5), while traveling to Buffalo; the Patriots host the Broncos (7-1) and visit the Texans (2-6), while the Bills come to Foxborough.
If the Patriots can merely go 3-4 the rest of the way, while facing only two teams currently over .500, the Jets would have to go 5-2 just to entrust the division title to tiebreakers. If New England could go 4-3, meanwhile, New York would likely need to run the table because they're already two conference losses behind, and at this point they can't really rely on the Bills or Dolphins to dent the Pats' division record.
Bottom line, the Patriots' quest for a 10th division title in 11 years appears to be in good shape.AFC
While there's a glut of teams in the middle of the pack, the Patriots' competition for playoff seeding looks like it may already be whittled down to four teams: the Chiefs (9-0), Broncos, Colts (6-2) and Bengals (6-3).
Kansas City and Denver have been the best and most dominant teams in the conference to this point, but judgment on those two clubs should be reserved until at least Dec. 1. Each of them has thus far played only one game within the West division, and they've built their impressive marks by feasting on two of the three easiest schedules in football. (The other has encountered the Carolina team New England faces next week.)
The Chiefs and Broncos face each other twice in three weeks, on Nov. 17 and Dec. 1, and each will also face a decent Chargers team before the latter of those meetings, so it's about to get much more difficult for both of those clubs.
Either way, the West winner looks well-positioned for a bye, and thus the Patriots' primary competition for the other divisional-round berth may be the South and North champs. The Colts are in good shape, sitting at 6-2 with only two games left against teams presently better than .500 - at Cincinnati and at Kansas City - though the Bengals may be actually be more of a threat.
That matchup with Indianapolis is their lone game against what is now a winning opponent, they play four of their final seven at home, and by virtue of last month's 13-6 win, they'd have the tiebreaker over the Patriots. That all considered, one team New England might want to be rooting for today, and a couple more times - strange as it may be - is the Ravens. They play the Bengals twice, plus they host the Jets, and at 3-5 Baltimore's expectations for this season have been lowered.
But there's no reason, given what they've done and what's ahead, that the Patriots' should be.
Dave D'Onofrio covers the Patriots for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is email@example.com.