After two months where virtually everything went right for the Patriots, the script changed during one 60-minute meltdown on Saturday night in Indy. It wasn't just that New England's seven-game winning streak was snapped. This is the NFL and lengthy winning streaks are difficult to maintain, and even good teams slip up once in a while.
But the 27-17 defeat at the hands of the Colts was jarring for the ineptitude the Patriots showed, particularly coming off a bye. Penalties, turnovers, poor decisions, special teams blunders and curious coaching calls all contributed to the team's first loss since the middle of October.
Mac Jones looked flustered perhaps for the first time of his career. Although he and the rest of the team continued to fight in the second half despite being down 20-0, the damage was done and the lack of execution throughout cost the team a chance to win.
As a result the Patriots margin for error is now gone. Sunday's showdown with Buffalo will likely determine the division. If the Patriots win they'll have a two-game lead with two games to play, thus eliminating the Bills based on what would be a season sweep. A win in Week 17 over Jacksonville would eliminate Miami as well, assuming the Dolphins win in New Orleans on Monday. If Miami loses that game, the Patriots could break out the hats and T-shirts with a win over Buffalo.
However, while the Patriots can all but wrap up the AFC East with a win, so too can Buffalo. The Bills would pull even with the Patriots at 9-6 and would hold an edge in division record (4-1 vs. 3-2). Buffalo closes with home games against Atlanta and the Jets, and three straight wins to finish would give the Bills the division title at 11-6.
So, after spending the last few weeks watching Kansas City, Tennessee and Baltimore in the race for the top seed in the AFC, one loss suddenly has the potential to drop the Patriots to a wild card spot. The Chiefs, incidentally, continue to win and now have the inside track to secure the first-round bye. At 10-4, they can lock up the top seed with wins over Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and Denver to close the season.
The lone bit of good news the Patriots received came from Pittsburgh of all places. The Titans self-destructed under a bevy of turnovers in the second half and handed a game to the Steelers, losing 19-13 after holding a 13-3 lead in the second half. That dropped Tennessee to 9-5 alongside New England, and the Patriots victory over the Titans last month gives them the No. 2 seed while Mike Vrabel's team dropped to the 3.
There are a crazy amount of scenarios that can still unfold as the holidays arrive, but one that was eliminated with the Patriots loss was New England controlling its own destiny for the top seed. That distinction now belongs to Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs. And more importantly, the loss opened the door for the Bills to climb out of the grave and reassert themselves as a contender in the AFC.
All of this should amount to a fascinating closing stretch.
Chargers coach Brandon Staley has been at the forefront of the fourth-down brigade all season. Of teams with playoff aspirations, no one has gone for it more than the Chargers. On the season, Los Angeles is 15-for-26 on fourth down, and that includes a 2-for-5 effort in a Thursday night loss to Kansas City.
Staley passed up sure field goals on goal-to-goal situations twice and failed, leaving valuable points on the field in a game the Chiefs eventually won in overtime. As is often the case, the critics were out in full force in the aftermath, including many in the New England area who were watching hoping the Chargers would take care of business to keep the Patriots on top in the AFC.
It became an attack on analytics, and in some cases the critics were correct. The problem with being strictly numbers-based in approach is there is no leeway for time, place and situation. The Chargers were set up with great field position to open the game thanks to a long kickoff return, but the offense struggled from there and faced fourth-and-goal from the 3. There's no shame in taking the early lead at that point, but instead Staley went for it and came up empty.
As the first half closed, it was virtually the same situation – fourth-and-goal from inside the 5 with the Chargers leading 14-10. This decision in my view was much more understandable given the time. The Chiefs knocked down the fourth-down pass as the half ended but had no chance to build off that momentum and mount a drive as a result since the half ended.
While the growing propensity to take risks and attempt fourth downs has overall been a positive development, Staley deserved some of the heat he took for perhaps being too reckless and passing up points in a game where it was clear those points would be needed. There's a cliché when facing a high-powered opponent that suggests touchdowns are needed. While that's true to an extent aren't points of any kind valuable?
Needing 3 yards from the 3-yard line isn't the same as other spots on the field where the defense has more ground to cover. Assuming the Chargers would convert all those opportunities was misguided, and after the game Staley still seemed like a coach who felt like the numbers alone would dictate his decisions.
Honestly, I love his aggressiveness. But the best coaches understand the nuance of these decisions and recognize when going conservative can be the wiser choice. By consistently passing up points, Staley put his team in a bad spot and it hurt his team's chances.
On the other hand
The offshoot of these decisions becoming more prevalent is the conversations that ensue in the aftermath. For the second time in two weeks John Harbaugh went for two in the final minute after scoring to get within a point. In between he went for two while trailing by nine with less than 10 minutes left, explaining that doing so allowed him to know what he would need down the stretch. (For the record, this is one line of analytics that makes absolutely no sense, but that's an argument for another day).
The results for the Ravens have been disastrous – the team lost all three games by a total of four points and is clinging to life in the AFC North at 8-6.
But for fans it's a lot more fun debating the choices than it would be had Harbaugh just gone conventional and played for overtime. Some love Harbaugh's bold approach while others feel his recklessness amounted to coaching malpractice.
The flip side would be kicking PATs and possibly losing in overtime, with virtually no second-guessing involved at all. I'll take the debates over the mundane every day of the week.
Personally, I loved the call to go for the win in Pittsburgh three weeks ago. Sunday in Green Bay? Not so much. I felt Baltimore had some momentum against the Packers and may have been able to muster up a stop in the final 42 seconds and gotten to OT. In Pittsburgh, all momentum had been lost and injuries had crippled the Ravens secondary.
I understand Harbaugh probably felt a Packers field goal attempt was inevitable and therefore he rolled the dice that Mason Crosby might miss it while trailing as opposed to being tied, a situation that would apply slightly less pressure. But Baltimore failed to convert – largely due to an awful play call where Tyler Huntley ran a sprint out to the right for basically what amounted to a one-man route – and we'll never know.
Week 15 tidbits
Not sure I've seen a bad team play harder than Dan Campbell's Detroit Lions do each week. Campbell may not be a great coach in terms of preparation and strategy but watching his players rally around him is impressive. At 2-11-1 and with loads of starters lost to injuries and COVID, the Lions keep making life tough on virtually all of their opponents – as Arizona found out the hard way on Sunday. … Carolina lost kicker Zane Gonzalez to a quad injury prior to their game in Buffalo, and coach Matt Rhule then held community auditions during the pregame. In the end he determined that none of the candidates would attempt a kick and instead went for two after both touchdowns and passed up a field goal attempt on fourth-and-9. Ultimately it didn't really affect the game since the Panthers made their first two-pointer and wound up losing 31-14. But it was striking watching various members of the team kicking before the game, and immediately thoughts of the Patriots came to mind. Belichick would no doubt already know the identity of his backup kicker long before any such emergency presented itself. In fact, time is spent during training camp each year preparing for such emergencies. This summer the team ran reps that included Deatrich Wise snapping to Gunner Olszewski, who held for punter Jake Bailey. Obviously not an ideal situation, but Belichick and the Patriots would be much more prepared for the scenario. … Miami was 1-7. The Dolphins are now 7-7. They become just the fourth team in history to begin a season 1-7 and make it back to .500. … Over the years there was a lot of blue-print talk when it came to beating Tom Brady and the Patriots. It seemed every time Brady lost, fans wondered if a blue print to containing him had been found. Rex Ryan's Jets, Tom Coughlin's Giants and John Harbaugh's Ravens periodically had success but none did so consistently. That distinction may belong to Dennis Allen's Saints, however, who took down Brady for the fourth straight time (not including postseason) Sunday night. Brady was shut out for the first time since 2006 as the Saints continued their mastery of the GOAT.
Lots of trouble at the top across the league as Tampa, Arizona and the Patriots all go down.
- Green Bay (11-3) – The Packers allowed Baltimore back in the game but ultimately held on to the win and the top spot.
- Kansas City (10-4) – The Chiefs have been on the outside looking in but currently are the hottest team in football.
- Tampa Bay (10-4) – An inexplicable shoutout loss probably dashes the Bucs hopes of getting the top seed but they will still be heard from in January.
- Los Angeles Rams (9-4) – The Rams need to take care of business Tuesday night, but with the Cardinals reeling the door is open in the NFC West.
- New England (9-5) – Not going to kill the locals too much for one bad performance, but things won't get easier with Buffalo coming to town looking for redemption.