There have been murmurings all week, since the Patriots defeat of the Jets, that perhaps their chances to get a good shot in the playoffs are better than they seemed after their two-game skid against the Giants and Steelers.
Yet with their scheduling advantage and the weakness of the AFC this year, maybe it's time to go a little bit further than that. Looking ahead, this season might just be their best shot at making the Super Bowl again in the Tom Brady era.
There have been many times this season where the Patriots looked like this might be another lost year in their hopes for a fourth Super Bowl title. Their injury-plagued, talent-lacking secondary was giving up more yards than every other secondary in the league until Sunday, and...well, that's kind of it.
The rest of the team has actually played really well, but it's tough to recover from a terrible defensive backfield, especially with the way the game has taken to the pass. Then again, the New England Patriots did recover from their bad secondary last week against the then 8th ranked New York Jets defense. They sacked the quarterback five times, forced 2 interceptions (one a pick 6) and did what they should have done against a mediocre quarterback with novice play-calling skills.
The Jets game was encouraging. It should be even more encouraging as you look ahead to the Patriots schedule for the rest of the regular season. The Patriots are more likely to win out the rest of their games than any other team in the league. They could realistically finish their season 11-5 at the worst, if they play their best brand of football for the rest of November and December.
Six of the seven teams that the Patriots have left on their docket are starting different quarterbacks this week than they did in Week 1 of the season; only Buffalo has kept their starting QB intact. Technically the Redskins having a starting rotation of quarterbacks rather than just one, but you get the point.
Let's take a look at their final seven games
Up first: Monday Night at home in Gillette against the Kansas City Chiefs, led by Tyler Palko. Two years ago the 28 year old Palko was playing for the Montreal Alouettes of the Canadian Football League. This is not to say that he couldn't come out and impress the doubters, but even Tom Brady had some struggles in his first NFL starts. Plus, even with starter Matt Cassel in the game the Chiefs lost two in a row to the Miami Dolphins and the Denver Broncos.
The next week, the Patriots travel to Philadelphia to take on the Eagles. Normally, this would be a daunting task and probably a game that would favor the home team in the odds. But Philly has just three wins on the season, with obvious systemic and locker room issues eroding what was once dubbed the 2011 "Dream Team." Michael Vick has thrown 11 touchdowns and 11 interceptions; and although he and (mostly) LeSean McCoy have made them the best rushing team in the NFL, they have struggled to do much else offensively or defensively. Plus, Vick is questionable to start this week. Andy Reid should be tempted to start Vince Young, if only to see if their team can find any type of rhythm against the definitively better New York Giants.
After Philly the Patriots play is at home against the 0-10 Indianapolis Colts. Once again, it's still weird to think that any Colts game would be considered an automatic win; but if ever there was a guaranteed win in the game that lends itself to the "any given Sunday" mantra, this is it. They're losing for Luck, and the Patriots get some luck out of the deal as well.
After they win against the Colts, the Pats head to Washington to take on the Redskins and Rex Grossman and/or John Beck. The only redeemable quality for the ‘Skins is their pass defense, which is currently 9th in the NFL. Their schedule has something to do with that, but we'll give it to them anyway. Unfortunately they are playing against the 1st ranked passing offense, so their only possible advantage is pretty much null against Tom Brady, Wes Welker and the superhuman that is Rob Gronkowski.
Week 15 brings New England to Mile High Stadium where they will attempt to stop the legend that is Tim Tebow. Tebow has developed quite a little reputation for himself this season with his late game heroics and fourth quarter comebacks. Yet it's highly unlikely the game will be redeemable for Tebow and his overperforming Bronco's once the fourth quarter against the Patriots roles around. The only thing that may work in the Bronco's favor is if Tebow starts getting a rhythm throwing the ball against the weak Patriot secondary. That could spell disaster for the Patriot defense if they have to worry about stopping him on the ground and in the air.
The Patriots round out their season with their home games against the Miami Dolphins and the Buffalo Bills.
The last time Brady played the Dolphins in Week 1 of the season, he complete 32 passes for 517 yards and 4 touchdowns. It may not be quite the fireworks show that it was back in September, but the Dolphins will be playing for a better draft pick and the Patriots will most likely be playing for seeding in the playoffs. Don't be surprised if the Patriots are favored two touchdowns in that game.
When it comes to the Bills, as good as they played in their first five games they've played that poorly in their last four. Ryan Fitzpatrick has turned out to be a tough competitor and a pretty decent quarterback, but he does not yet possess the dynamism and accuracy needed at the position to lead his team to the next level. Fortunately, they do have Fred Jackson who is having the season of his career. There's a possibility that the Bills could still be playing for the wild card by the time week 17 rolls around, but the Patriots will be the better team in this matchup and the Bills will not have the comfort of Ralph Wilson stadium to fall back on this time.
2011 AFC Conference, weaker than usual
That's just a rundown of the Patriot's easy schedule, not to mention the fact that for the first time in a long time the AFC looks like it will be the weaker conference in the playoffs. There is no team that is a convincing forerunner for the first or even second seed, so every team with a winning record technically still has a chance.
The Steelers have played very well sitting at 7-1, but Ben Roethlisberger may have a fractured thumb on his throwing hand. Plus, they have lost both their games to the divisional rival Baltimore Ravens. The Ravens have had their own woes, suffering inconsistency on the offense at Joe Flacco's helm; losing winnable games to crappy teams like the Jaguars and the Seahawks. Plus you can't completely dismiss the Bengals, who are still nipping at their heels in the AFC North.
The Houston Texans have looked phenomenal all season as one of the best teams in the conference. But they just lost Matt Schaub for the rest of the season, and Andre Johnson has still not returned from injury.
After the regular season sweep by the Pats and a tough Thursday night loss to the Broncos, the Jets are in major trouble in the standings. Even if they do manage to sneak in the Wild Card spot, they are not even close to the same team that beat the Patriots last year in Gillette. It looks doubtful that they will make it to the AFC Championship game for the third year in a row.
The final division in the conference is the AFC West, which currently features the Oakland Raiders with a one game lead over the Chargers, Chiefs and Broncos; who are all tied with five losses. That division will most likely be up for grabs until the final weeksof the season, and whichever team comes out the West will be the most beatable team in the postseason.
If there were ever a season for the Patriots to really take advantage of weak opponents and an under performing, injury-riddled AFC, this is the year. Sometimes everything breaks right for a team. If the Patriots continue to capitalize on their advantages, the road to the Super Bowl will go through New England.