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NFL Notes: Pats playoff picture coming into focus

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With the season squeaking just past the halfway point, the Patriots find themselves sitting at 5-4 and smack dab in the middle of the playoff race in the AFC.

Week of Firsts

The Patriots Week 9 win in Carolina represented a lot of firsts – at least in the post-Tom Brady era. The 24-6 win was the team's third in a row, marking the first three-game winning streak for New England since Weeks 6-8 in 2019. It also moved the Patriots above the .500 mark at 5-4, the first time that has been the case since Week 3 of last season when a win over the Raiders made them 2-1.

Most importantly, the win, coupled with Buffalo's stunning loss at Jacksonville, allowed the Patriots to move within a half-game (one game back in the loss column) of the 5-3 Bills in the AFC East standings. It's the closest the Patriots have been to first place since Week 1 of last season when the same two teams were 1-0.

In other words, a lot has happened with regard to the Patriots playoff chances over the past three weeks. In fact, with nine long weeks (and eight games) of football still to play, New England currently holds a playoff spot based on tiebreakers in the tightly jumbled AFC.

How tight are things in the conference? There are currently nine teams in the AFC with exactly five wins. Two of those – Buffalo and the Chargers – currently lead their respective divisions. The Patriots are jockeying for position with fellow 5-4 teams such as Cleveland, Cincinnati, Kansas City and Denver, while the 5-3 Steelers and Raiders are in the fray as well. Only the Jets, Miami, Jacksonville and Houston are out of it.

Thanks to the Patriots excellent 4-1 conference record, they currently own the seventh seed ahead of fellow 5-4s Cleveland, Cincy, KC and the Broncos, all of which have at least two conference losses. If the season ended today (spoiler alert: it doesn't), the seeds in the AFC would be as follows:

  1. Tennessee
  2. Baltimore
  3. LA Chargers
  4. Buffalo
  5. Las Vegas
  6. Pittsburgh
  7. Patriots

That would mean the Titans would receive the lone first-round bye and set up the Patriots for a visit to Baltimore for a wild card matchup. But obviously any such projections at this point would be wildly premature. The tight nature of the standings illustrates how quickly things can change, and with the Browns set to visit Gillette Stadium on Sunday it's easy to see the importance of the outcome.

Such a matchup is almost worth two wins considering the head-to-head implications and conference records. The Patriots already posted a huge victory in this regard by winning in L.A. against the Chargers and will get another huge chance down the road with a trip to Indianapolis in December.

The Patriots three-game winning streak has been an impressive response to the early-season struggles, and now the idea of a playoff berth, or even division title, isn't so far-fetched.

Home Not So Sweet

Denver Broncos' Jonathon Cooper (53) and safety Caden Sterns (30) celebrate after Sterns intercepted a pass
Denver Broncos' Jonathon Cooper (53) and safety Caden Sterns (30) celebrate after Sterns intercepted a pass

Road teams continue to perform at a surprisingly high level in the NFL, going 7-7 in Week 9. Included among the road wins were impressive efforts by Tennessee over the Rams, Denver over Dallas and an undermanned Arizona team over San Francisco.

All three were noteworthy but the Cardinals once again showed incredible resilience playing without quarterback Kyler Murray (ankle) and top wideout DeAndre Hopkins (hamstring). Veteran backup Colt McCoy took the reins and was solid, completing 22 of 26 passes for 246 yards and a touchdown in a 31-17 victory. The Cardinals also won earlier this season in Cleveland without coach Kliff Kingsbury and now stand atop the NFC at 8-1.

The Week 9 results were a continuation of a year-long trend in the NFL as road teams are now 70-66 overall.

Sunday Bloody Sunday

Jacksonville Jaguars outside linebacker Josh Allen (41) sacks Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen
Jacksonville Jaguars outside linebacker Josh Allen (41) sacks Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen

It would be hard to imagine a more tumultuous week in the NFL in terms of stunning results. There are seasons that don't feature heavy double-digit favorites losing outright, let alone two on the same day. Both Dallas and Buffalo were dealt stunning defeats at the hands of Denver and Jacksonville, respectively.

In the Cowboys case, it was an embarrassing beatdown as the Broncos led 30-0 in the final five minutes before a couple of meaningless touchdowns for the home team. The Bills Josh Allen continues to show he's susceptible to erratic play and that led to his team's downfall in Jacksonville. Poor decisions and ball security allowed the Jags to come away with a 9-6 win.

While those were the two biggest upsets, they weren't the only surprising scores. The aforementioned Cardinals victory was unexpected given Arizona's personnel and the Niners desperation coming in at 3-4. And the Titans first game without Derrick Henry proved to be a stunner as Tennessee trounced the Rams on the road behind a suffocating pass rush led by Justin Simmons.

The 3-6 Giants also posted an improbable win, toppling the Raiders 23-16 thanks to three Derek Carr turnovers. Las Vegas has dealt with a lot of off-field issues this season, the latest involving Henry Ruggs' car crash that resulted in the death of a 23-year-old woman in the wee hours of the morning on November 2. At some point it's worth wondering how much adversity one team can handle.

Week 9 tidbits

Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson (8) runs during a game against the Minnesota Vikings
Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson (8) runs during a game against the Minnesota Vikings

I continue to watch the Ravens and see a lot of flaws but somehow John Harbaugh's team is 6-2 atop the tough AFC North. Baltimore rallied from 24-10 down to take a 31-24 lead, only to watch the Vikings tie it late with a touchdown. Then in overtime the Ravens appeared poised to end it on the first possession, but Minnesota's Anthony Barr made one of the best defensive plays of the season, tipping a Lamar Jackson pass and somehow managing to intercept it near midfield. The Ravens could have folded at that point but instead forced a three-and-out, regained possession at their own 10 and quickly marched to the game-winning field goal. It's the type of resilience the team has shown all year. … Cleveland and Baker Mayfield sure look like they missed Odell Beckham on Sunday. After sputtering throughout a dismal 15-10 home loss to Pittsburgh in Week 8, the Browns demolished the Bengals in Cincinnati, 41-16, using defense and big plays to get the job done. Cornerback Denzel Ward finally looks healthy and is playing at an All-Pro level in the Browns secondary. Should be a good one at Gillette on Sunday. … Tua Tagovailoa needed a strong second half to prove to the Dolphins that he was the man going forward. A broken finger and other injuries kept him on the sideline in Sunday's win over Houston, however, and Miami will no doubt resume its pursuit of Deshaun Watson in the offseason. Tagovailoa shows some promise at times but can't stay healthy and as a result doesn't use his athleticism enough to be a true dual-threat quarterback. … Chargers coach Brandon Staley was back at it on Sunday, rolling the dice on fourth down in a tie game. Facing a fourth-and-1 from the Eagles 28 with 1:45 left in a 24-24 tie, Staley opted to go for it rather than kick a potential go-ahead field goal. Staley wanted to move the chains and ultimately melt the clock before attempting the game-winning kick, and Justin Herbert allowed him to do so by converting the QB sneak. Risky move as a stop likely would have led to a regulation loss, but the aggressiveness was rewarded.

Power 5

Lots of instability at the top this week, but until we see more we'll chalk it up to one bad game for those involved.

  1. Arizona (8-1) – The Cardinals ability to stay the course through adversity has been impressive.
  2. L.A. Rams (7-2) – Matthew Stafford looked out of sorts from the start Sunday night, but the Rams will bounce back.
  3. Green Bay (7-2) – Aaron Rodgers' absence on Sunday likely cost his team a win. Assuming he's back soon, the Packers should be fine.
  4. Tennessee (7-2) – Few teams have ripped off consecutive wins over teams of the caliber of Buffalo, Kansas City, Indy and the Rams. The Titans are currently atop the AFC.
  5. Tampa Bay (6-2) – The Bucs were on their bye in Week 9 and will be looking to get back on the winning track.

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