The Patriots put forth their most complete performance of the season in Los Angeles and came away with a decisive 45-0 victory that put the team at .500 for the first time since Week 4. After a four-game losing streak, New England has now won four of its last five and is doing its best to make a playoff push.
In short, the Patriots did their job by winning. The question now is, will that be enough to get the team to the playoffs?
Path To Playoffs
Strange as it seems the Patriots do indeed have a path but it's quite narrow and requires a good deal of help. The first order of business is obvious: win the remaining four games to go 10-6. While a 9-7 record wouldn't officially eliminate them, a loss would make things exceedingly more difficult.
So we'll stick with the Patriots finishing 10-6. Even if that's the case, plenty of help elsewhere is needed.
Through 13 weeks of action the 6-6 Patriots are on the outside looking in. For this exercise we'll assume Pittsburgh and Kansas City win their respective divisions. Each has 11 wins so regardless they can't fall behind the Patriots in the standings. Tennessee (8-4) and Indy (8-4) are locked in a tight battle for the AFC South title. Both have paths to the 11-win mark as well with the Titans facing Jacksonville, Detroit, Green Bay and Houston down the stretch while the Colts see Las Vegas, Houston, Pittsburgh and Jacksonville.
Assuming the Titans win the division (slightly easier road), the Colts join the Browns (9-3) and Dolphins (8-4) in the wild card mix. Baltimore (6-5, Tuesday night game at Dallas still pending) and the Raiders (7-5) are also contenders. That means the Patriots need to finish ahead of three of those five teams to earn one of the three wild card spots.
However, the Patriots tiebreaker situation is quite favorable with head-to-head wins over the Ravens, Raiders and two over the Dolphins (assuming the Pats win out). Plus the Patriots 8-4 conference mark would top the list among those teams. So finding a way to get the Ravens, Dolphins and Raiders to 10-6 appears to be the best path. (We're giving the Browns a spot with wins over the Jets and Giants enough to get to 11 wins).
Of the three Miami seems destined for some losses. The Dolphins face Kansas City, Vegas and Buffalo as well as the Patriots. We've assumed a loss to New England, so a loss to the Chiefs gets Miami to 10 wins at most. That's one.
The Raiders would have to win out to get to 11 wins and they face Indy, the Chargers, Miami and Denver. This one's a bit tougher because two of those games are against fellow contenders Miami and Indy, so one team has to win.
Things can change quickly, but when Indy and Vegas face off on Sunday a Colts win benefits New England more. That would mean the Raiders max out at 10-6, and the Patriots would have the tiebreaker edge. That's two.
The Ravens need to run the table to get to 11-5, and they have the schedule to do it. After Tuesday's tilt with Dallas, Baltimore sees Cleveland, Jacksonville, the Giants and Bengals. The Browns will be tough and the Giants are playing well, but if the Ravens can get their act together that's the easiest slate of the group.
Let's go back to the Colts. We assumed a win over the Raiders, but a loss would mean Indy would need to win out to get to 11. A loss at Pittsburgh would drop the Colts to the 10-win group, and the Patriots would have a better conference record as well.
Apologies for the popsicle headache I no doubt just induced. There are a lot a machinations still to be worked out, and four weeks is an eternity in the NFL. Assuming wins and losses regardless of opponent is dangerous business. A lot can change with one game, and it will.
But despite being two games behind multiple teams with just four to play, the Patriots are still alive.
Here Comes The Judge
Don't look now but Joe Judge's New York Giants are among the hottest teams in the league after their spirited upset win on the road in Seattle. The Giants have now won four straight and sit atop the NFC East standings with a 5-7 mark (they have the tiebreaker over 5-7 Washington). Early in the season, Judge appeared to be headed down a road so many of Bill Belichick's former assistants travel, alienating some within his own organization with his authoritarian approach that left some questioning his credentials. At 1-7 and seemingly headed nowhere, it was easy to see why there were questions.
But the Giants found a way to win a couple of games over Washington sandwiched around a win over Philly and suddenly there was hope. In between Judge dealt with some turmoil that resulted in an altercation with offensive line coach Marc Colombo. Colombo bristled when Judge brought in former Patriots OL coach Dave DeGuglielmo as a consultant, and reportedly the two got heated before Colombo was eventually fired.
Veteran receiver Golden Tate also questioned Judge's methods, leading to a one-game benching a couple of weeks back. Tate has since apologized and was active for the team's biggest win of the season in Seattle, catching four passes for 40 yards and seems to be back in the fold.
Perhaps most impressive was the fact that the win over the Seahawks came without quarterback Daniel Jones, who watched back Colt McCoy do just enough to secure the victory.
Judge faced quite a bit of adversity in his first season at the helm and appears to be coming out of it well. The Giants are obviously the beneficiaries of a terrible division and that's the only reason a playoff berth is possible, but more importantly he's dealt with the adversity and righted the ship, something that isn't easy to do especially in a volatile media market like New York.
Mike Tomlin, Kevin Stefanski and Matt LaFleur will likely receive, and deserve, plenty of consideration for Coach of the Year. But if Judge can finish strong and get his team into the playoffs, he should find himself right in the middle of that discussion.
Tanking is one of the ugliest words in sports, and it elicits all kinds of reactions. For most it's a term that indicates a team isn't trying to win. While in the truest sense that's accurate, it's a lot more nuanced than that. To me, professional players generally put forth their best effort. More often than not, the idea for players and coaches alike is to perform to the best of their abilities each game. This is especially true for young players trying to find and keep their jobs.
Where things get a bit murky is when you consider the thought process that goes into a season. Is every move being made with the best interest of that year's team in mind? Is the front office doing everything it can to succeed that season? On the occasions where teams decide to tank – or more accurately, rebuild – it's these decisions and not the efforts of players that comes into question.
This all brings us to the Jets and their calamitous loss to the Raiders. I feel pretty strongly the Jets are tanking this season in an effort to secure the No. 1 overall pick, which no doubt will be Trevor Lawrence. But I don't think that manifests itself with the effort on the field. Then plays like Sunday's game-winning bomb happen and people really start to point fingers.
In short, the Jets led 28-24 in the final seconds and the Raiders had the ball at New York's 46. There was time for three Hail Mary heaves toward the end zone, but Derek Carr needed just two. After overthrowing Nelson Agholor on the previous play, he hit a wide-open Henry Ruggs for a touchdown with just five ticks left on the clock.
The play was made possible largely due to Jets defensive coordinator Gregg Williams' decision to send the house at Carr while leaving his defensive backs alone in man coverage with no safety help. In football terms it was zero coverage with an all-out blitz.
People immediately wondered if there was more to it than just a poor decision. It's proof, some said, that teams do in fact intentionally try to lose. I disagree. I didn't see a lack of effort on the part of the Jets players, particular corner Lamar Jackson, who was placed on an island with the speedy Ruggs. He bit on a fake and was dusted, but not because he wasn't trying.
As for Williams? He played the situation exactly how he'd done it a number of times in his career. He'd done the same thing in New Orleans and with the Rams and the pressure got to the quarterback and forced hurried throws. This time it didn't. ESPN's Marcus Spears went so far as to suggest he wanted the result that transpired to ensure that Adam Gase would go down in infamy as another head coach of an 0-16 team. Strong words.
Williams was fired the following day, which is a pretty clear indication that Gase or anyone else associated with the Jets wanted to lose. And if Williams in fact wanted to lose, he's been coaching that way for quite some time. As a defensive coordinator for the Jets (2019-20), Browns (2016-18) and Rams (2014-16) over the last seven years his teams have a combined record of 26-73-1.
Tanking is an ugly term and deep down there are no doubt members of the Jets organization that aren't all that upset about the loss, especially since Jacksonville has only one win and is just one game "behind" in the Trevor Sweepstakes. But if you think the players openly tried to lose, take a second and listen to safety Marcus Maye after the game. "I think we could have been in a better call in that situation," doesn't nearly describe the anguish that Maye's words conveyed.
I thought it was interesting to see Arizona's Kliff Kingsbury choose to go for it on fourth-and-12 in the third quarter of the Cardinals loss to the Rams. Trailing 17-7 at the Rams 40, Kingsbury decided to go for it and converted en route to a touchdown drive. The decision stood in stark contrast to one he made in Foxborough a week earlier when he kicked a 45-yard field goal on fourth-and-1 in the final two minutes instead of trying to pick up the first down and melting the clock. … Kudos to Cleveland for posting a huge road win over Tennessee and lending some legitimacy to the Browns 9-3 record. Baker Mayfield finally came through in a big spot and the Browns are poised to make the playoffs for the first time since 2002. Not sure how I feel about the second half of that win, however, after the Browns allowed the Titans to outscore them 28-3 after the break.
The Steelers fall from the ranks of the unbeaten but no changes in this week's Power 5.
- Kansas City (11-1, 1st last week) – Even when they sputter they still find a way to impress.
- Pittsburgh (11-1, 2nd last week) – Pittsburgh can't run the ball and injuries are piling up on defense.
- New Orleans (10-2, 3rd last week) – Saints improve to 8-0 without Drew Brees over the last two seasons, but the defense is the story.
- Buffalo (9-3, 4th last week) – Impressive performance under the Monday night lights for Josh Allen and the Bills.
- Green Bay (9-3, 5th last week) – Aaron Rodgers and Davante Adams look like they're playing in the schoolyard.