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Tuesday, January 25, 2022

2021 NFL playoff picture: Where Patriots stand in the AFC after Week 13, what team can improve on

For a minute there, it looked like the New England Patriots were in the midst of another lost season. After retooling the roster over the offseason following a 7-9 campaign in 2020, Bill Belichick’s team limped out to a 2-4 start and was winless at home following Week 6. It was at that point where the team looked lost. A chunk of the new faces struggled to mesh and the defense was breaking at points in the game where they could barely afford to bend. 

However, following that overtime loss to Dallas, the Patriots would flip a switch and turn the season on its head. They are currently riding a seven-game winning streak that has them at 9-4 on the season and not only sitting atop the division but the entire AFC as the No. 1 seed. The defense has blossomed into arguably the top unit in the NFL and the offense has started to click both in the passing game and on the ground. As I’ve noted previously during this streak, this is one of Bill Belichick’s masterpieces

But where does New England go from here with five weeks remaining in the regular season? Below, we’re going to take a look at the current playoff picture and where the Patriots stand in it all. We’ll also dissect the club’s remaining schedule, highlights some areas of improvement, and predict where they’ll ultimately finish. 

Current playoff position 

The Patriots entered Week 13 as the No. 2 seed in the conference. However, after the Ravens fell to the Steelers on Sunday, they vaulted to the top spot in the conference leading into their Monday Night Football tilt with the Buffalo Bills. That win was critical for their playoff position as a loss would have dropped them all the way down to the No. 5 seed. Now, they have a leg-up against Buffalo within the division with one head-to-head remaining. 

New England also holds a head-to-head tiebreaker over the Tennessee Titans (No. 2 seed), the Los Angeles Chargers (No. 5 seed), and will be in a position to gain one against the Indianapolis Colts, who they’ll play in Week 15. Those could prove to be key pieces to this playoff picture as the second, third, and fourth seeds are all 8-4 on the year while the remaining three teams in the current playoff picture are 7-5, leaving little room for error going forward. 

One team that the Patriots haven’t played this season and is worth keeping an eye on is the Kansas City Chiefs. They will always be a threat with Patrick Mahomes under center and especially as their defense has come alive over the last few weeks where they’ve won five straight. They’ll play the Raiders, at Chargers, Steelers, at Bengals, and at Broncos to close out the year. While that’s a tough path to the end of the season, they could be a threat if they start firing on all cylinders. 

That said, the Patriots do have a massive advantage against the rest of their AFC opponents when it comes to conference record, which does factor into tiebreaker scenarios. After Week 13, New England is 7-1 against the AFC. The next best conference record belongs to the Colts (6-3), who are currently on the outside looking in on the playoff picture.   

Remaining schedule 

Here’s a look at each of the Patriots’ five remaining opponents. 

  • Week 14: BYE
  • Week 15: @ Indianapolis
  • Week 16: Buffalo Bills
  • Week 17: Jacksonville
  • Week 18: @ Miami

The Patriots will get a much-needed week off in Week 14, which will be a good opportunity to see how the rest of the competition in the AFC looks. Buffalo’s matchup with the Buccaneers down in Tampa will be of note as it relates to the division race, and the Ravens will be traveling to Cleveland to take on the Browns in a noteworthy head-to-head. 

After that, they’ll head to Indy for what is arguably their most difficult remaining game on the schedule. The Colts are a tough matchup for the Patriots as they are tremendous on the ground with star running back Jonathan Taylor. While it may not be a must-win, moving to 10-4 with back-to-back home games on the docket would be a great spot to be in. Meanwhile, in Week 15 is the highly anticipated rematch with the Bills, which could very well be a division-clinching opportunity for the Patriots.

Finally, they wrap up the regular season in Foxborough with what should be a layup win against the Jaguars before traveling down to Miami to put a bow on the year. That game for the Dolphins — who have won six straight — could be a must-win game for Brian Flores and company, so the Patriots will likely be getting their best punch right to the end.  

Areas of improvement 

  • Stopping the run. While New England’s defense has been superb on balance, the one weak area has been stopping the run. Teams have been able to have their way with the Patriots front seven on the ground if they truly commit to it. Even for a team that runs as little as the Bills, they averaged 4 yards per carry in Week 13. On the season the Patriots are allowing 4.4 yards per carry, but that number is worse when you shrink the scale to the last three weeks where they are giving up over 5 yards per carry. 
  • Red zone execution. This has been one area where the Patriots have been a bit inconsistent, which could be a fatal flaw when you get into potential shootouts in the playoffs. New England’s touchdown percentage in the red zone is just 54.35, which ranks 26th in the NFL. Over the last three weeks, they are a league-worst 33.3% in red zone scoring (touchdowns only), tied with the New York Giants

Prediction 

While nothing is clinched at this point, it would take an utter collapse for the Patriots to miss the playoffs. The real question is whether or not they’ll be able to hang onto the No. 1 seed in the conference and earn that first-round bye. It’s certainly possible, but that game against Indianapolis should give folks some pause. Jonathan Taylor is the type of back that could give the Patriots fits in Week 15 and with the records so razor-thin, any loss could have New England moving in the wrong direction. That said, I do think they’ll be able to beat their other three opponents in the Bills, Jaguars, and Dolphins, bringing them to at worst a 12-5 record. That should be good enough to stay atop the conference, especially with such a strong record against the AFC. 

Meanwhile, Caesars Sportsbook has the Patriots at 8-1 to win the Super Bowl (fourth-best odds in the NFL) and are +375 to win the AFC (second-best odds in the conference). 

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