It’s that time of the year again.
The time where the Patriots are mired in a slump of sorts, albeit a malady which still has them at 10-2 and in possession of a first-round bye. The time where pundits believe that this time is different, that this time, the Patriots truly are, once and for all, finished.
The thing is, for as real as the problems are for the Patriots on the offensive side of the ball…do they have what could be considered a “bad” loss on their résumé at this point?
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There’s no shame in losing in Baltimore this season, even though by doing so, wheels were set in motion for New England to fall out of the top spot in the AFC playoff picture. Ditto for Houston, a place where the Patriots have had success historically, but these Texans have a different look with Deshaun Watson developing into an elite quarterback.
That’s in stark contrast to a season ago, when the Patriots went 3-5 on the road for their first losing record away from Foxboro since 2000, Bill Belichick’s first season as coach. The Patriots didn’t just lose five times away from Gillette Stadium last season, they lost to five teams that wound up missing the playoffs – all before going on the road to beat the Chiefs in the AFC Championship Game, of course, for their first road playoff victory since 2006.
Those same Chiefs reappear on the schedule this week for the Patriots, the final opponent in a five-game stretch of “real” competition before the slate softens to end the regular season.
The comparison isn’t perfect, given the game is at Gillette Stadium, but Kansas City appears on New England’s schedule at a similar time to the Steelers in 2018. Though Pittsburgh wound up missing the postseason, it still went 9-6-1 and handed the Patriots what would be their final loss of the season, 17-10, before New England closed at home with two gimmes against the Bills and Jets.
The Patriots were written off – rightfully so – following an anemic offensive showing in the Steel City which wound up being Josh Gordon’s final game of the 2018 season. The matchup vs. the Steelers was seen as must-win for New England, given it seemed like its final test prior to the postseason, not to mention the ramifications involved when it came to securing a first-round bye.
This time around, there’ll be three weeks to go left in the regular season rather than two following the last “difficult” matchup for the Patriots. Which means that, save for securing the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoff picture, the outcome of Sunday’s game won’t necessarily spell doom or gloom for New England should it come up short.
Remember when the Patriots were 8-0 at the end of October, doing so against mainly inept competition at the start of the season? That’s what the schedule returns to following Sunday: the team is at Cincinnati (1-11) in Week 15 before returning home to face an admittedly better Bills team (9-3) and a frisky but forlorn Dolphins team (3-9) to close things out. If the Patriots don’t show up for any of those games, we’ve got bigger problems at hand than just homefield advantage in the postseason.
Beating Kansas City would still be optimal, of course. As the Eagles and Cowboys continue to stumble in the NFC, the Patriots still lack a “signature win” in 2019 – not that this is the College Football Playoff and such frills are required.
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Even if things go awry Sunday, the Chiefs would still be a game back of New England in the race for the second and final bye week.
Same goes for the Texans, who, like the Chiefs, would hold the head-to-head advantage with the Patriots but still be a game back. Both Houston and Kansas City, currently 8-4, likely need to win out to have any hope of catching New England. The Texans (vs. Broncos, at Titans, at Buccaneers, vs. Titans) have a much more realistic chance of doing so than the Chiefs (at Patriots, vs. Broncos, at Bears, vs. Chargers).
If the Patriots are who we think they are, the Chiefs and Texans could both win out and it won’t matter because of who’s in front of them after this week. Jarrett Stidham could play quarterback left-handed and New England would still cruise past the Bengals and Dolphins. While the Bills seem to be finding their stride, it’s worth mentioning that save for a meaningless Week 17 game in 2014, they have never beaten a Tom Brady-led Patriots team at Gillette Stadium.
Again, the goal shouldn’t be to finish second in the conference. There’s a reason the Patriots went 12 years between road wins in the postseason. The goal continues to be hoping the Ravens (at Bills, vs. Jets, at Browns, vs. Steelers) slip up down the stretch and the Patriots capitalize, finishing 14-2 to Baltimore’s 13-3.
Just don’t say that the season is over if Kansas City comes into New England and leaves with a victory. This team is still far too talented to fall out of the top two spots in the conference and into a spot where it’s playing on wild-card weekend for the first time since 2009.
Is Sunday a game the Patriots can win? Yes. Is it a game they should win? Maybe. Is it a game they absolutely have to win?