If the Patriots are smart, they will act desperate, too.
A mere three days removed from their 59-24 dismantling of the Indianapolis Colts at Gillette Stadium on Sunday, the Patriots will take to the field against the Jets on Thanksgiving night with a four-game winning streak. New England is 7-3. New York is 4-6. Perhaps most importantly, Baltimore is 8-2 entering a season-ending stretch that could open the door for the Patriots to still secure a first-round bye.
Of course, it may all still come down to the one word that has caused the Patriots and their fans so much consternation this season: defense.
First, the facts: thanks to Baltimore's 31-30 victory over the Patriots in Week 3, the Ravens will win most tiebreakers between the teams at season's end. For the Pats to gain the No. 2 seed in the AFC, the best way is for New England to finish a game ahead of Baltimore in the standings (they could also get the second seed via best conference record if there's a three-way tie). As such, the Patriots must make up two games on the Ravens with six weeks to play, which seems like a rather daunting task.
But take a good look at the Ravens' schedule, beginning this week: at San Diego, Pittsburgh, at Washington, Denver, the New York Giants, at Cincinnati. As good as the Ravens have been at home in recent years - the Ravens are 5-0 in Baltimore this year and 33-5 at home in regular and postseason play since the start of 2008, both best in the NFL - the Ravens also have stubbed their toe on the road on more than one occasion.
Let's say the Ravens lose twice in the final six games (anything more seems fantastical). The Patriots would need to go 6-0 in their final six games - including wins against Houston (at home) and San Francisco (also in Foxborough) in Weeks 14 and 15 - to qualify for one of the two byes in the AFC. The other possibility would be for the Texas to lose one additional game other than their trip to Gillette Stadium, something that almost happened on Sunday. The Texans were nearly stunned by the wretched Jacksonville Jaguars before prevailing in overtime.
But for the Pats to even have a chance, they simply cannot slip up in games like the holiday affair with the Jets or, for that matter, the Dec. 2 affair in Miami.
With all due respect to Gronkowski, who has been nothing short of a force since coming into the league in 2010, the Patriots should need him on Thanksgiving and they shouldn't need him in Miami. During the offseason, in fact, head coach Bill Belichick prepared for this very possibility by stockpiling tight ends, from Michael Hoomanawanui and Daniel Fells to Visanthe Shiancoe. Are any of them Gronkowski? No. But Gronkowski's injury against Baltimore in last year's AFC title game clearly taught Belichick something, particularly after the Giants identified an ineffective Gronkowski as a "decoy" in the Super Bowl.
By all accounts, Aaron Hernandez should be back on Thursday. Quarterback Tom Brady still has Wes Welker, Julian Edelman and Brandon Lloyd, too. In the Patriots offense, Danny Woodhead is a legitimate receiving threat.
They shouldn't miss Gronk too much.
At least for a couple of weeks.
Beyond that, if the Patriots are to make another legitimate run at a Super Bowl, we all know where the secret rests: on the defensive side of the ball. With or without Aqib Talib, it should surprise no one that the Patriots turned in an encouraging effort against the Indianapolis Colts. New England's three best defensive games this season have come against Indianapolis, St. Louis and Arizona, who rank 21st, 28th and 30th in the league in points scored. (If you want to include the opener against the Tennessee Titans, they rank 18th.) The next two opponents, the Jets (23d) and the Dolphins (26th), also rank among the most inept offenses in the league, giving Belichick another two weeks to get his house in order before the schedule comes to a head with the back-to-back meetings against Houston and San Francisco.
By then, maybe Baltimore will have dropped a game. Maybe the Pats will get lucky and the Texans will have slipped up, too. But for any of it to matter, for New England to again have the chance at hosting just one playoff game before an appearance in the AFC Championship, the Patriots must take care of business against the Jets and Dolphins, two of their perennial punching bags in the AFC East, particularly as we creep into December.
In the NFL, when the ground begins to freeze, that is the time to avoid any and all missteps.
Tony's Top 5
Favorite blog entries