The goals have changed, and that is something Bill Belichick should be commended for. The Patriots are 9-2. Nobody in the NFL is better. And yet, if the Patriots are to win a fourth Super Bowl this season, they almost certainly will have to win their next game, one week from tonight against the New York Jets at Gillette Stadium.
Four days removed from a Thanksgiving Day victory over the Detroit Lions – where would this team be without Tom Brady? – the Patriots once again find themselves in Jets week, a place that needs no additional hype. For all of the soap opera story lines that have crossed between these franchises in recent years – Bill Parcells, Curtis Martin, Belichick and Eric Mangini, among others – rarely has there been a more important regular season game between played between these teams.
With a win next Monday, the Jets can take complete command of the division and, by extension, the AFC. By consequence, New England may have no realistic hope of anything other than a wild card. The Patriots would lose both a bye and home field advantage, meaning the Patriots would open the playoffs at a place like Indianapolis. Or Kansas City. Or maybe San Diego.
If there is anything we have learned about these Patriots, this year and last, it is that they remain a far different team within the walls of Gillette Stadium than outside of them, last week’s game at Detroit the most recent example.
Fact: if the Patriots had played someone other than an improving Lions franchise last week, they might have lost, just as they did at Cleveland. Their performance at New York this year also left something to be desired. They got lucky in San Diego. The Patriots certainly played brilliantly at Pittsburgh, but their overall road performance has been mediocre at best, inconsistent and unpredictable.
But at home? On the whole, quite good. With Brady at quarterback, the Patriots have not lost a regular-season home game since 2006, though the obvious playoff defeat against Baltimore last year sticks out as a rather glaring exception. Still, we know the Patriots can play well in Foxborough. We know they can win here. Home field advantage and byes are critical advantages for any team in any postseason, but they are especially valuable to these Patriots at this particular time.
As a result, this game means far more to the Patriots than it does to the Jets. New York can lose this game and still end up with home field advantage and a bye in the playoffs because the Jets currently own tiebreakers over, among others, New England. The Ravens and Steelers go head-to-head this week. The Jets and Steelers still have to face one another. Even with a loss, New York’s fate could still be in its own hands.
Not true for the Patriots. With a defeat, because of tiebreakers, the Patriots essentially would be two games behind New York with four games to go since the Jets would have won both head-to-head meetings. While nothing is impossible, that reality almost ensures that New England would be no better than a wild-card team – even if the Patriots finished tied with the Jets at 13-3 for the best record in the conference.
Entering this year, some of us (ahem) believed the Patriots could be in for a grind. The schedule was brutal (and still is). The defense was young (and still is). Despite all of that, Belichick and his team have found ways to excel. What Belichick has done with this personnel against this schedule ranks among his two or three best coaching jobs in New England, no small feat for a man who has won three Super Bowls as a head coach and orchestrated arguably the single greatest upset in Super Bowl history.
Remember: in the NFL, this is that time of year when the picture can change most dramatically. In 2001, the Patriots were 5-5 through 10 games, then won their final six to end up with home field advantage and a bye. None of us ever imagined that a Super Bowl was even a remote possibility. The Jets of last season were 4-6 through 10 games, entering the final weekend of November; they went to the AFC title game.
Seasons are not merely salvaged in the final five or six weeks of the NFL schedule. In many cases, they are built.
Without question, based on wins and losses, the Patriots have exceeded the expectations of most everyone this season. Still, this team is hardly in a position to take anything for granted. The epitaph on this Patriots campaign is still a long way from being written, and we still do not know where this really is in its redevelopment over a number of years. Of course, we will not really know that answer for some time, until we have the benefit of hindsight.
So far, to be sure, the 2010 Patriots have been a wonderful success story, proof that you can simultaneously rebuild and compete at the highest levels.
But with a win against the Jets next Monday, the Patriots can put themselves in prime position for the playoffs, giving that wonderful success story a better chance for a couple more chapters.
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