FOXBOROUGH - As the NFL playoff picture begins to come into focus in the final month of the season, it's pretty clear that the Patriots really can't afford to lose another game.
Sunday's soggy, turnover-filled 33-10 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers has put New England in an undesirable - but not impossible - position.
At 7-5 and a game back in both the AFC East and wild-card hunts, they need to go 4-0 in December - sweeping the Seahawks, Raiders, Cardinals, and Bills - to have a good chance of avoiding missing the playoffs for the first time since 2002.
Forget the esoteric tiebreakers for a second. For those to even come into play, the Patriots have to do something they haven't accomplished all season: string together more than two wins in a row.
After winning 18 straight games last season, the injury-ravaged Patriots have struggled to get on a winning streak this season. They opened the season by beating Kansas City and the Jets. They defeated the Broncos, 41-7, in Week 7 and followed that up with a 23-16 win over the St. Louis Rams. But since then, they've alternated losses and wins, going loss (Indianapolis), win (Buffalo), loss (Jets), win (Miami), loss (Pittsburgh).
That just isn't going to get it done.
"No, not really, not unless you get lucky and play in a weak division, and this year our division is tough," said left guard Logan Mankins. "We need to string four wins together.
"We've been very inconsistent that way. We win a couple, lose a couple. We win one, lose one, so that's not going to get you anywhere. We need to string a bunch of wins together."
The Patriots need to win starting on the road Sunday against the Seahawks, because the playoff tiebreakers could prove back-breaking for them.
In the AFC East, the Jets and Patriots split head-to-head, but New York is 3-1 in divisional play, which is the next tiebreaker. The Patriots are 3-2 with only Buffalo left.
If the Jets (8-4), whose final four games are at San Francisco, against Buffalo, at Seattle, and against Miami, go 3-1 and win both division games, they'll be AFC East champions no matter what the Patriots do, by virtue of a better division record.
The best the Patriots could hope for if they're tied with the Jets at 11-5 is that one of New York's losses is a divisional loss. Then both teams would be 4-2 in the division. The next tiebreaker is common opponents. The Patriots would be 7-1 against common opponents outside the AFC East with the Jets, who can finish no better than 5-3 against non-AFC East common opponents.
But a Jets loss to the Dolphins (7-5) could open the door for a three-way tie in the AFC East, and if Miami wins its final four games, it could win the division on the basis of conference record. The Dolphins are 5-4 in the AFC, with Buffalo, Kansas City, and the Jets left. The best the Patriots can finish in the AFC is 7-5.
The Patriots would lose any wild-card tiebreaker to the Colts because of Indianapolis's 18-15 victory over the Patriots. Baltimore and the Patriots haven't played each other, so the first tie-breaker there would be conference record. Baltimore is 7-3 and still has games against Pittsburgh and Jacksonville, although its schedule also includes tough games with the Redskins (this Sunday) and at Dallas.
For all the unknowns in the playoff equation, what the Patriots can control is whether they win or lose.
"The best thing we can do is go out there and win," said coach Bill Belichick. "Right now, that is what we are working on for Seattle. We are not worried about anybody else but Seattle.
"I know there are other games on our schedule but there is nothing we can do about any of those games. We are not going to concern ourselves with them, just like we normally wouldn't."
Linebacker Mike Vrabel agreed, but he acknowledged that the team wasn't going anywhere if it kept up its win-one, lose-one pattern. However, he bristled at the notion that the Patriots' season somehow had unraveled.
"I think there are a lot of teams in this league that would like to be 7-5," he said. "Go ask Detroit, Houston, some of these other teams, Cleveland. You can go ask [Romeo Crennel] what has unraveled.
"We're going out there and we're trying to fight, and until they tell us we ain't got a chance and there are no games left, that's all we can do."
It would be easy for the Patriots to use the injuries to Tom Brady, Rodney Harrison, Laurence Maroney, and Adalius Thomas as an excuse, but they won't settle for the moral victory of being in playoff contention. They want to be in the playoffs.
"I think we have a lot of good players here, and a good scheme," said Mankins. "I expected us to be a lot better than 7-5. Just a few games, things haven't gone our way. We've had a lot to do with that. Hopefully, we can get it straightened out."
The only way to straighten it out is to stop swapping wins and losses and got on a patented Patriots winning streak.
"I think we all put ourselves in this position, so I think we all need to do something about it or we'll end up at 8-8," said Vrabel.