The fact that the Patriots lost three of their last four-game to limp into the playoffs is unfortunate but it doesn't mean all is lost. The postseason is upon us and with that there is hope in 14 NFL locales, including here in Foxborough with Bill Belichick's Patriots.
Despite the stumbles, New England has shown enough promise throughout the year to prove it can play with anyone when the team avoids mistakes. The problem has been finding ways to do so when taking on quality opponents. The Patriots have turned the ball over at least once in all seven losses, and in most of those games they also were guilty of committing sloppy penalties that greatly aided the opponents' cause. In related news, the Patriots are 3-7 against teams that finished with winning records.
In Miami on Sunday there were two such infractions on special teams, including an absolutely inexcusable alignment error by Lawrence Guy on a punt that allowed the Dolphins to move the chains. Such plays have proven costly all season, and as Devin McCourty said after the game if that continues the season will end.
On the flip side the Patriots know the formula they need to succeed, and it's one that has worked at times. Belichick wants his team to run the ball, get a lead, play stout defense and avoid turnovers. When those things happen the Patriots can win, which should make Saturday's showdown against the Bills one of the weekend's best matchups.
There was nothing fancy about New England's mindset in the Monday night victory on December 6. Belichick used a punishing ground game, played to the nasty conditions and walked away with a 14-10 victory. The conditions may not include 50 mile-per-hour winds this time, but Saturday night in Orchard Park doesn't promise to be beach weather either.
Assuming the weather is less than ideal, that's an edge for New England, the more physical team that wants to run the ball and could benefit from anything that prevents Josh Allen for pulling a repeat of his performance in the December 26 rematch won by the Bills at Gillette Stadium.
It will be a contrast in styles to be sure, as the Bills no doubt want the conditions to be as favorable as possible. And with the teams set to meet for the third time in just six weeks, there will be no surprises on either side. It all should add up to be one of the best matchups of what promises to be a wild weekend.
With that in mind here's a quick look at the six matchups slated for wild card weekend, the best two of which feature the 3-6 games in each conference.
Saturday, January 15
No. 5 Las Vegas (10-7) at No. 4 Cincinnati (10-7), 4:30 p.m. (NBC)
The fact that the Raiders qualified for the postseason is amazing in and of itself. The team lost its coach, a star wide receiver and like most others a bevy of personnel to injuries during the course of the season. Yet, Rich Bisaccia became the first interim coach to lead a team to the playoffs since 1961. For that they get to travel to Cincinnati to play a team that hasn't won a playoff game since 1990. But this Bengals team is much different than most of its predecessors with young talent sprinkled all around an explosive offense. Joe Burrow rested an injured knee in Week 18 and assuming he's healthy enough to play to his level, the Bengals offense will force Vegas to keep up in a shootout. On paper, that doesn't figure to happen but both teams lack playoff experience and if one doesn't handle the moment it could send it packing.
No. 6 New England (10-7) at No. 3 Buffalo (11-6), 8:15 p.m. (CBS)
Not much to say about this one that hasn't already been said. The Patriots want to run it and Buffalo prefers to throw. Both defenses have been statistically excellent, but both have been leaky stopping the run at times. Allen and the Bills will be making their third straight postseason appearance while Mac Jones will try to become the first rookie quarterback to win a playoff game since Russell Wilson in 2012. It figures to be a physical battle, much like each of the first two meetings, and the start of the game will be vital. If the Patriots fall behind, as they have in recent weeks, the Bills will be in control. If the Patriots get the lead, then the pressure ratchets up a few notches on the home team. Should be a fascinating contrast in styles and easily the most intriguing of the AFC matchups.
Sunday, January 16
No. 7 Philadelphia (9-8) at No. 2 Tampa Bay (13-4), 1 p.m. (Fox)
There's a reason Tom Brady was unabashedly rooting for San Francisco in overtime of its Week 18 win over the Rams. The Bucs vaulted ahead of L.A. and drew the Eagles in the process, setting up what figures to be a lopsided affair in Tampa. The Eagles have done a nice job of beating the bad teams under first-year coach Nick Sirianni and managed to get to the postseason by running the ball constantly with quarterback Jalen Hurts. Now they take on the high-powered Bucs, and that formula may not be enough to keep up. The teams met on a Thursday night in Philly back in Week 6 and Tampa escaped with a 28-22 win in a game that saw the Eagles mount a furious late rally that fell short. Brady doesn't have as many weapons available as he would like, but he still has more than enough to do damage.
No. 6 San Francisco (10-7) at No. 3 Dallas (12-5), 4:40 p.m. (CBS)
This one likely is the best of the NFC matchups and should offer plenty to entertainment. Both teams have offenses that can out points on the board, but both do so while using physical styles and punishing ground games to augment the passing. Jimmy Garoppolo is dealing with an injured thumb but still managed to rally the Niners from a 17-0 deficit on the road to post the overtime win that got San Francisco to the playoffs. He has two of the most valuable weapons in football in Deebo Samuel and George Kittle, and they'll need to be productive with Dallas' Dak Prescott on the other side. The Cowboys have been lethal at home this season, and Prescott has elite playmakers in CeeDee Lamb and Amari Cooper to lean on, as well as Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard in the running game. This one figures to go down to the wire.
No. 7 Pittsburgh (9-7-1) at No. 2 Kansas City (12-5), 8:15 p.m. (NBC)
Somehow the Steelers miraculously are still alive, even surviving an overtime between teams that both would have been assured playoffs spots with a tie (Raiders/Chargers) and sent them packing. The Raiders booted the game-winning field goal as the final gun sounded and Pittsburgh is off to Kansas City instead of the golf course. Ben Roethlisberger could be playing his final game and will need to be much more productive than he's been this season if his team is to pull off the upset. The Chiefs still haven't quite found their groove, but offensively things have looked closer to normal in recent weeks and Patrick Mahomes continues to adjust to taking the underneath stuff that many defense are giving him. The Chiefs should be safe here assuming they take care of the football and come to play.
Monday, January 17
No. 5 Arizona (11-6) at No. 4 Los Angeles Rams (12-5), 8:15 p.m. (ESPN)
This is the second game featuring a third meeting between division foes, and like the Patriots and Bills these teams split their regular-season games. Neither side comes in with a ton of momentum as the Cardinals have lost four of their last five while the Rams blew a huge lead at home in the finale. And despite winning its previous five prior to the Niners meltdown, L.A., and Matthew Stafford in particular, struggled a bit. Stafford has been outstanding for most of the season but has thrown eight interceptions in his last four games. Kyler Murray has also been less than his best since losing DeAndre Hopkins for the season, so neither side is clicking. The Rams have more talent on paper but the rubber match should be a tight one.
Game No. 272
The league's first-ever 17th regular-season games featured some interesting developments, including Pittsburgh surviving in overtime in Baltimore, San Francisco climbing out of the grave to beat the Rams and Jacksonville ending Indy's season with an improbable seventh straight home win over the Colts.
But none of those compared to the drama that unfolded in Game No. 272 – the final one of the 2021 regular season.
ESPN has likely already commissioned a "30 for 30" special on this one. The Raiders and Chargers put forth an epic with L.A. mounting a furious rally to score 15 points in the last five minutes, converting fourth-and-10s on what seemed like every other play. Ultimately Justin Herbert tied the game on the final snap with a 12-yard dart to Mike Williams as time expired.
But that was only the start of the drama. The teams entered the game knowing the winner would be in the playoffs while the loser went home. Except there was one wrinkle: a tie would allow both to advance while Pittsburgh, which qualified with the win over the Ravens, lost out on a potential tiebreaker if all three were knotted a 9-7-1.
So the Steelers watched the 10-minute overtime period praying for a touchdown that never came. First the Raiders moved into field goal range, then the Chargers followed suit. With the game still tied after both made the kicks, Las Vegas took over with 4:30 left knowing a tie would allow it to advance. The Raiders picked up a first down, then another as the clock ticked below a minute. Facing a third-and-4 from the Chargers 41 and just 38 ticks left, L.A. coach Brandon Staley called a timeout.
The rookie coach faced a lot of heat for the decision because it appeared as if the Raiders were content to allow time to run down. But Staley didn't like the personnel he had on the field and felt he needed changes. Vegas ultimately ran the ball, just as most predicted prior to the timeout, and Josh Jacobs picked up 10 yards to move into field goal range.
Raiders quarterback Derek Carr said after the game that the timeout changed their strategy but it certainly appeared that Vegas was content to run the clock down either way. The timeout wasn't the problem; allowing a 10-yard run was the killer.
Had the Chargers dropped Jacobs for a 2-yard gain, time likely would have expired with neither side willing to take a chance that could have opened the door for a loss.
It was one of the strangest endings to a game in league history with plenty of second-guessing to go around. NBC's Cris Collinsworth seemed obsessed with the tie possibilities, but he strangely never mentioned a potential reason for the Raiders willingness to go for the win. While a tie would have put Vegas in the playoffs, it would have meant the 7 seed and a trip to Kansas City. Instead, the Raiders head to Cincinnati, which won't be easy, but considering the two blowout defeats they suffered at the hands of the Chiefs earlier this year it had to be the more desirable outcome.
It's time for the postseason so it's time to expand the power rankings to include the entire field.
- Green Bay (12-5) – Aaron Rodgers was limited to a cameo in the Packers loss in Detroit but they remain the most consistent team of 2021.
- Tampa Bay (12-5) – Tom Brady's season at 44 years of age is one of the most remarkable feats in sports history.
- Kansas City (11-6) – The Chiefs still aren't complete but their experience and explosiveness give them an edge over the rest of the AFC field.
- Los Angeles Rams (12-5) – Matthew Stafford won't enter the postseason on a high but the Rams are still as talented as anyone on paper.
- Buffalo (11-6) – Much like the Chiefs, Buffalo doesn't look quite right but the talent is hard to ignore. The Bills could flame out and lose to the Patriots or go all the way. Anything is possible with the Josh Allen-reliant Bills.
- Dallas (12-5) – The Cowboys have been inconsistent down the stretch as well but if the defense keeps taking the ball away Dallas will be very tough to dismiss.
- Cincinnati (10-7) – The Bengals explosive offense led by Joe Burrow will give opponents plenty to worry about.
- New England (10-7) – The Patriots have questions for sure but when they don't beat themselves they are awfully tough to beat.
- Tennessee (12-5) – The Titans are owners of a first-round bye but I just don't see the talent necessary to make a run. The defense is flawed and with Derrick Henry questionable at best, Mike Vrabel's team is vulnerable.
- San Francisco (10-7) – The Niners closed with a flurry and if Jimmy Garoppolo is healthy (a big IF) they are capable to taking down anyone.
- Arizona (11-6) – The Cardinals are stumbling into the playoffs having lost four of the last five. Can Kyler Murray regain his early-season form?
- Las Vegas (10-7) – What the Raiders lack in physical ability they make up for in heart and toughness. Vegas is 4-0 in overtime and that's not a coincidence.
- Pittsburgh (9-7-1) – The Steelers are working on borrowed time but Ben Roethlisberger made enough plays down the stretch to keep his season – and career – going.
- Philadelphia (9-8) – The Eagles are 0-7 against teams with winning records. Those types of trends don't usually reverse themselves in the playoffs. Kudos to coach Nick Sirianni on a nice first year.