AFC East

Cassel: Predicting Second-Half Superlatives for Patriots' Stretch Run

Cassel: Predicting second-half superlatives for Patriots' stretch run originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

The 2022 season is all in front of the New England Patriots.

The Patriots are 5-4 coming off their bye week and have a huge game coming up against the New York Jets. Their schedule is challenging down the stretch with six games against teams with winning records, but they control their own destiny in terms of making the playoffs.

What needs to happen for New England to earn a playoff spot, and how do they stack up against the Dolphins and Bills in a highly-competitive AFC East? Let's get into some second-half superlatives and predictions.

Patriots Talk: How the next eight games can alter the Patriots future | Listen & Subscribe | Watch on YouTube

Team to beat in the AFC East: Dolphins

Miami is playing with incredible confidence right now, and Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle are so dangerous. But what has impressed me the most is the Dolphins' consistency of late.

Tua Tagovailoa has 10 touchdown passes and zero interceptions in his last four games. The guy is incredible. Part of that is his strong supporting cast, but he's also delivering the ball on time and making the right reads.

The fact that Miami already beat Buffalo two weeks ago puts the Dolphins in the driver's seat, especially with Buffalo struggling a bit over these past few games.

Most important position group: Offensive line

It all starts up front. The offensive line has to be more cohesive and play more consistently. There have been a lot of moving parts: David Andrews has missed time, while Cole Strange and Isaiah Wynn have both been in and out of the lineup.

But they have to find some consistency up front and start to jell because everything you do offensively -- whether it's in the run game or the pass game -- starts with the guys controlling the line of scrimmage.

Perry's Mailbag: How will David Andrews' return impact the offense?

They haven performed up to their level in the last few weeks, and you can make all sorts of excuses as to why. The Patriots are about to face several teams featuring good defensive fronts and linebacking play, though, so the offensive line will have to find consistency or else it will be tough every time they step on the field. Continuity on the offensive line should be the team's No. 1 priority.

Biggest point of emphasis for Mac Jones: Ball security

It's all about not putting the ball at risk. That has been an issue for Jones throughout the course of the season, so taking care of the football absolutely should be a top-of-mind.

The Patriots have a strong defense that can keep them in games, so the last thing you want to do is give the other team an opportunity to score off your turnovers. Jones needs to get into a rhythm early in games and walk that line of still being aggressive and not fearful of making mistakes, but also not being careless with the ball.

Perry: What Mac Jones wants to improve after 'full audit' of himself

It's not all on Mac, either. Receivers have to get open with better separation in their routes. The offensive line has to give him time to evaluate the defense and go through his reads. When you're rushed and you feel like you're under constant pressure, it takes a toll on your psyche: You get sped up and you don't set your feet. 

So, it'll be a group effort, but taking care of the ball is the most important key for Mac Jones.

Offensive X-factor: DeVante Parker

Jakobi Meyers has been the Patriots' most reliable wide receiver for a few years now. But they need someone like DeVante Parker to step up down the stretch and help jump-start this offense.

Parker has shown he has the ability go up and get "50-50 balls," and the Patriots need those types of plays to get more explosive on offense. Teams are going to stack the box to defend against Rhamondre Stevenson and try to stop the Patriots' commitment to the run. That should open up 1-on-1 opportunities on the outside.

While that doesn't necessarily mean it's "bombs away" to Parker, every offense needs the ability to create explosive plays that can cut the field in half, so they don't have to rely on 13- or 14-play drives, which are hard to sustain in this league.

Parker and even Nelson Agholor have to show up in these next few games and be impactful players for this offense.

Offensive MVP: Rhamondre Stevenson

You could easily point to Meyers for this award based on his stats midway through the season. But Stevenson is still going to be the workhorse.

He's been the security blanket. He's been their most consistent guy. They're going to need him to continue running the ball, breaking tackles and converting the hard first downs. He should be a big part of this offense, especially as the weather starts to get worse and the passing game becomes more challenging.

Defensive MVP: Matthew Judon

Judon is the clear answer here. He was the MVP of the team in the first half of the season. He's the leader of the team and the heartbeat of that defense. He sets the tone with his pass-rushing ability, and barring injury, I don't think that changes.

He's a special player, and the offense always has to account for him whenever he's on the field. He's elite.

Will the Patriots finish above .500? Yes

The Patriots have a tough stretch coming up, but there's so much parity in their division and the AFC overall. The Bills were the No. 1 seed in the AFC just two weeks ago, and everyone thought they'd run away with the division. Now they rank sixth in the AFC.

If the Patriots can take care of business against the Jets, I think they can take one of their two matchups with Buffalo. The Vikings will be tough to beat on Thanksgiving, the Bengals usually play well down the stretch, and we've mentioned how dangerous the Dolphins are. But the Cardinals and Raiders are both beatable, so I could see the Patriots going 4-4 in their final eight games, which would get them to 9-8.

Do Patriots have a path to the playoffs? Simulating final eight games

Would that be good enough for a Wild Card berth? It may not seem like it right now, but we've already seen a few surprise upsets this season, and the AFC truly is wide-open outside of the Chiefs.

I think we'll see a lot of close games down the stretch, and the Patriots will need to take advantage of every opportunity if they want to reach the postseason.

Editor's Note: Matt Cassel played 14 years in the NFL as a quarterback, including four with the Patriots from 2005 to 2008. He serves as an analyst for NBC Sports Boston, appearing on Pre/Postgame Live, as a guest on Tom Curran's Patriots Talk Podcast every Thursday, and as a columnist each week during the season.

Copyright RSN
Contact Us