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Patriots must "stay united" over final three-game stretch

Coming off a last-second loss the Raiders, the Patriots will look to stick together over a final three-game stretch that will show where they truly stack up in the AFC.

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There's no way to sugarcoat the devastating ending against the Raiders that dropped the Patriots to 7-7 on the 2022 season and left their slim playoff hopes dangling by a thread. Making it even worse was that New England seemed on the verge of pulling out a comeback win on the road that might've been a signature victory of the season, perhaps one that actually might've sparked a real run to the playoffs. Instead, it collapsed in spectacular and historic fashion and now the Patriots are staring down a three-game stretch to end the season against three of the best teams in the conference that are all jockeying for playoff spots and looking to make things even worse for the Pats.

"Unfortunately here today we collectively made too many mistakes and gave up some big plays that were obviously the difference in the game," said Bill Belichick following the loss. "So, we just can't do that in this league, and it cost us. We will work to eliminate those and continue to play the good football that we play, but we just had too many mistakes and too many bad plays to win. So, that was obvious."

The "too many mistakes" has been a common refrain for the Patriots this season. Miscues and miscommunication once again littered their performance with the common offensive themes of poor performance on third down (2-of-13) and in the red zone (0-of-1) that continue to hamper the attack. A second-quarter drive that stalled out at the Raiders' two-yard line was a glaring but apt example. Over a four-play sequence that started just two yards from the end zone, the offense rushed for one yard, then was forced to take two timeouts before picking up a false start penalty. They settled for a field goal.

"It's a combination of things that we obviously need to do better," Bill Belichick succinctly said when asked about the sequence on Monday morning, but that was just one example of many issues that have popped up consistently since the summer.

"It stings, and it's going to sting, but we've got more games to play, and we got to turn the page, and keep fighting; don't quit," said quarterback Mac Jones. "That's the one thing we can't do is quit. Just attack each day, and come together as a team, and do everything we can to become a better team."

More frustrating was the defense acquitted themselves well for most of the second half, forcing five-straight punts at one point and even giving the offense back the ball up by seven with just over three minutes to play. Davante Adams had a mere four catches for 28 yards. Josh Jacobs was held under 100 yards. For most teams that should've been a winning performance, but even that silver lining came apart on the final Raiders scoring drive that went 81 yards in just 1:39. Touchdown controversy aside, the Patriots defense had their chances to seal the win again but couldn't come up with a final stop, a fatal flaw with an offense that has been so limited.

The Raiders showed why they've struggled in Josh McDaniels' first year, hurting themselves with a whopping 13 penalties. They're not a great team and one the Patriots should've beaten with superior situational football. That missed opportunity could haunt the Patriots as the final slate of the Bengals, Dolphins and Bills will be far more telling as to where New England stands against the actual top teams in the conference and how far off they are.

The Bengals have won six straight and eight of their last nine. They're arguably the hottest team in the conference and have reinforced their spot as one of the AFC's best teams. Then there's Miami and Buffalo, two teams that have beaten the Patriots in seven-straight games. A late-game collapse is one thing, even if it came on an all-time ugly play, but these games against three of the conference's playoff teams will be the true litmus test of where the New England Patriots truly stand right now.

FiveThirtyEight.com currently gives the Patriots a 19 percent shot at the playoffs, with the 8-6 Chargers and the 8-6 Dolphins sitting in the final two wild card spots. In all likelihood, the Pats would have to win out to secure a spot, but even if that's not in the cards the final three games present three different opportunities to show the Patriots can still compete with the AFC iron, that they're not as far off as a playoff-less season might indicate.

But it will take a dramatic reversal of established themes this season.

Matthew Slater relayed what the post-game message was from Belichick via Mark Daniels of MassLive.

"Stay united," said Slater. "You lose a game like this, a lot of teams turn on each other, start pointing fingers. There's going to be people seeking to divide this team, seeking to tear it down. We have to rise above all that.

"We can't be divided. I think there's going to be a lot of folks throwing a lot of stones. We have to keep believing in one another. We can't turn on one another. Just stay the course. It goes without saying, it's tough losing a game like that. It's nobody's fault. We win as a team, we lose as a team. We just got to keep fighting."

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