After the unexpected walk-off win by the Patriots over the Jets New England must quickly turn the page to a Thanksgiving matchup against the Minnesota Vikings who were just blown out on their home field by the Cowboys, 40-3. The game will kick off a stretch of four straight in front of national television audience as the Patriots push to the playoffs will be televised for all to see.
At 6-4, the Patriots have positioned themselves to control their own fate as far as the playoffs go. The latest 538 projections give them a 54 percent chance at the playoffs right now, with a projected win pushing that estimate to around 70 percent. But it's the games against Buffalo and the rematch with Miami that appear to be most critical as the AFC East remains one of the toughest divisions in the NFL. A bout with fellow Wild Card contender Cincinnati slated for Christmas Eve is next in line as far as playoff implications.
With a difficult slate featuring four current playoff teams for five of the seven remaining games, the Patriots control their destiny and can take charge if they return to one of the mantras that carried them through many seasons over the last two decades -- playing your best football after Thanksgiving.
In recent years that hasn't been the case. In 2019 they went 2-3 down the stretch, missing out on a bye week by losing to Miami at home in the season finale. In 2020, they were 3-3 after the turkey break, missing the playoffs for the first time since 2008. Last season, post-Thanksgiving wins over the Titans and Bills were forgotten with a 1-3 record coming out of the bye that still led to a playoff berth, but one where the Pats were overmatched in a 47-17 loss to Buffalo.
With seven games to go, this season can be different but there are two key factors to consider. First, the offense must find a way to generate more points. Against the coming high-scoring offenses, three of which rank in the NFL's top-10, the Patriots won't be able to win games with production like they had against the Jets.
"We moved the ball," said Bill Belichick following the win over New York. "We had 300 yards of offense but only three points. So did a poor job of finishing our drives, getting the ball in good field position into scoring range or getting the ball in the red area into the end zone. We've got to find a way to do that better, but it's good to do it from a win"
Obviously, the Patriots defense has been playing great, but the lack of takeaways against the Jets was a bit of a frightening sign despite the otherwise dominant effort. It was just the second time this season (Week 1 at Miami) that they didn't procure a turnover.
The takeaways also dried up in the last three seasons, contributing to the late swoons. In 2019 the defense forced zero takeaways in three of their final six games, with just one coming in the playoff loss to the Titans. In 2020 they had just two takeaways in a three-game skid that killed their playoff hopes. Finally, in 2021, they had just four turnovers in their final five games with three of them coming against the hapless Covid-depleted Jaguars.
A similar fade down the stretch might make an offensive rebirth impossible, however, the bar isn't very high to expect the Patriots offense could find their best football here over the final seven weeks. That could shrink the defense's margin for error, which right now seems too narrow to knock off the elite teams coming up.
Here's a rundown of the final opponents and how these final seven games are shaping up.
|@ Minnesota Vikings (Thanksgiving)
|Buffalo Bills (TNF)
|@ Arizona Cardinals (MNF)
|@ Las Vegas Raiders
|@ Buffalo Bills
At Minnesota Vikings
Coming off a 40-3 blowout at the hands of the Cowboys the Vikings have lost just two games this season and will have something to prove on national television. Injuries have hit the Vikings hard, with left tackle Christian Darrisaw already ruled out by head coach Kevin O'Connell and standouts like Justin Jefferson (toe) and ZaDarius Smith (knee) battling ailments that will limit them. Add it all up and despite their talent at receiver and running back (Dalvin Cook), the Vikings offense is experiencing some protection issues that look similar to the Patriots. A conventional offense like this is usually in the Pats' defensive wheelhouse, especially when injuries are factored in. Still, Jefferson is a game-changer to be respected.
Coming off two losses in a row, including one to the Jets, the Bills turned things around and knocked off the Browns to get their winning ways back on track. They'll travel back to Detroit on Thanksgiving to face the Lions and then meet the Patriots a week later on Thursday Night Football. At 0-2 in the AFC East, Buffalo will need a win in New England to maintain pace with the Miami Dolphins, who will face the Texans this weekend coming off their bye week. The Patriots defense has been really good, but facing nemesis Josh Allen will be truly telling where they're at.
Schedule before Patriots: at Detroit Lions
At Arizona Cardinals
The Cardinals will host the 49ers tonight on Monday Night Football, as they look for their first two-game winning streak of the season. At 4-6 Arizona is still on the outside looking in but has the chance over the next six days to even their season record if they can knock off their second and third-straight teams from California. Kyler Murray is a mobile quarterback who should challenge some of the Patriots' recent defensive weaknesses while DeAndre Hopkins is the kind of elite receiver that the Pats haven't seen much of this year. They'll have a bye week before facing New England on Monday Night Football.
Schedule before Patriots: vs. San Francisco 49ers, vs. Los Angeles Chargers, BYE
At Las Vegas Raiders
Old friend Josh McDaniels' squad got a much-needed overtime win over the Broncos this past weekend. They'll travel to Seattle to face a surprising Seahawks team before playing back-to-back games against the teams from Los Angeles. The Patriots got a glimpse of Vegas this summer and Davante Adams and Josh Jacobs headline their offense, which has battled injuries to key players like Hunter Renfroe and Darren Waller. Despite their record the Raiders should know how to play the Patriots, setting up a fascinating matchup against two teams that will both need a win.
Schedule before Patriots: at Seattle Seahawks, vs. Los Angeles Chargers, at Los Angeles Rams
After an 0-2 start, the Bengals are getting their season back on track, winning six of their last eight including a 37-30 win over the Steelers on Sunday. The Bengals are very much in direct competition with the Patriots for a wild card spot, making this the most intriguing non-division game left on the schedule. Will Jamarr Chase be back in the mix by Christmas Eve? This is a very good offense with one of the best young quarterbacks in the game. It should be one of the pivotal games of the second half, but the Bengals have a fairly daunting schedule themselves, with games slated against six potential playoff teams in their final seven games.
Schedule before Patriots: at Tennessee Titans, vs. Kansas City Chiefs, vs. Cleveland Browns, at Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
With Tua Tagovailoa playing like an MVP candidate, the Dolphins are surprisingly pushing the Bills for the AFC East division title. The Patriots haven't been able to solve Miami since the 2020 opener, losing four straight to their divisional rivals. Miami also spoiled New England's bye week hopes late in 2019, but this time it could be the Patriots turn to play spoiler. Miami's explosive offense is showing no signs of going anywhere, the Patriots will need to solve it sooner or later.
Schedule before Patriots: vs. Houston Texans, at San Francisco 49ers, at Los Angeles Chargers, at Buffalo Bills, vs. Green Bay Packers.
At Buffalo Bills
The Patriots will wrap up their regular season in Buffalo where it's anyone's guess what the game will mean for both teams. Last year, the Patriots got a win during the regular season on the road in Buffalo, thanks largely to significant wind and weather that largely grounded both teams' passing attacks. This remains the hardest game on the schedule for New England. They should hope they don't need a win in the finale to get into the playoffs. With Buffalo's recent losses, signs continue to point toward the Bills being likely to still need a win themselves, perhaps to have a chance at the playoff bye week as they continue to chase Kansas City and or perhaps challenge Miami for the division title. Aside from the Bills' two games against the Patriots they're slated to face just two other current playoff teams, hosting Miami and traveling to Cincinnati.