Patriots limp into playoffs on three-game win streak with AFC's top seed

Published: 12/31/2017 6:29:38 PM
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — The Patriots concluded one of the most disappointing regular seasons of the Bill Belichick (or perhaps any) era in underwhelming fashion on Sunday with a 26-6 victory over the Jets. With the win, New England clinches the top seed in the AFC and limps into the playoffs on a three-game win streak, merely tied for the best record in the NFL this season.

“It’s good to have 13 wins,” Belichick said as if each NFL victory were a unique, brutal challenge which should never be taken for granted. “It’s not easy, but these guys accomplished it. We'll look forward to starting the second season.”
Experts with calculators, spreadsheets and extensive files assigned New England a totally not arbitrary and absolutely reasonable expectation of winning 19 games this season, largely due to the fact that the Pats won 18 games 10 years ago. Also, the Pats added a very good receiver this year, just as they did in 2007, and that one parallel was too many parallels to ignore.
Unfortunately, thanks to Sunday’s victory, the Patriots will now be able to win just 16 games … at most. And that is only if they don’t implode under the weight of endless fatal flaws and overlooked shortcomings that could conceivably exist. Quite surprisingly, those glaring, intangible, sort-of defined weaknesses have delivered only three victories to New England’s unworthy slate of opponents this year. But they still loom large.
For example, midway through the season, the Patriots lost one of their best defensive players, Dont’a Hightower, to a season-ending pectoral injury. This was devastating as New England is only 13-1 in games without Hightower over the last two seasons. Also, the Patriots’ quarterback is 40 years old, and though Tom Brady is widely considered the favorite to win the league’s Most Valuable Player Award, his body is biologically programmed to self-destruct at any moment (also, there were no other players of value in the entire league this year). Brandin Cooks, the speedy, young receiver, who was supposed to single-handedly render opposing defenses obsolete, finished with only 1,082 yards and seven touchdowns.
Among the many reasonable fears that keep Patriots fans up at night is the thought that the NFL could change its rules without warning and decide games based on defensive yards allowed, instead of by points. In that event, the Pats would certainly be in a pickle, as they entered Sunday’s game with the league’s fourth-worst total in yards allowed. Should the league abandon its long-standing tradition of valuing points above all other stats, that would render meaningless the fact that New England gave up just 18.5 points per game this season, the fifth-best performance in the league. Likewise, such a scenario would also give no weight to the fact that New England has allowed only 14.6 points per game over its last 12 games.
Of course, any discussion of the Patriots’ season-long performance must acknowledge the unending stack of tomato cans they toppled to reach the postseason. New England only faced eight teams with winning records this season, which is many fathoms below the league average of 8.38. The Pats went only 6-2 in those games, merely tying them with Pittsburgh for the best mark in the league against opponents with winning records.
The Patriots beat those Steelers, but only as a result of a correct call that overturned a would-be, game-winning touchdown late in the game. Also, because the Steelers then lapsed into confusion and chaos with their quarterback throwing away a chance to tie the game on a confounding interception. But mostly, the officiating.  As a result of God’s benevolent hand reaching in to correctly officiate that game, the Patriots will have home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs, if they make it to the AFC Championship game, a feat they have accomplished six consecutive times.
Sunday’s game illustrated the potential pitfalls for New England. The offense, as one reporter observed in Brady’s postgame press conference, “sputtered” after the opening touchdown drive. Indeed, the Pats only scored three more times before the half, including two touchdowns. They have now produced zero points over their last two quarters, and Rob Gronkowski didn’t catch a pass, perhaps foretelling certain doom.
If (when?) those deeply held fears of the Patriots faithful finally manifest in the playoffs, and the team fails to win three more games, then New England fans will have to settle for the disappointment of just five Super Bowl victories, seven conference championships and 14 division titles over an 18-year span. Should Pats fans prepare for the worst? Well, this is a team that has won only 11 of its last 12 games.
Draw from that whatever conclusion you will.
Dave Brown is a freelance correspondent who covers the Patriots for the Monitor. You can follow him on Twitter @ThatDaveBrown.

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