The Home Stretch: Cause for Concern?

Get it done, Tommy. (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images)

Oh what a difference one week can make.

It's hard to believe that this time last week, it was almost impossible to kill time at work by reading anything but an article about how the Patriots were done and how Bill Belichick has lost his touch as a defensive genius. There were a few who hinted that everyone was overreacting and that the division still went through New England, but for the most part the cloud looming over Patriots nation was as dark and thick as Steve Carrell's chest pre 40 Year Old Virgin wax job. I don't know of many other teams that would be so heavily criticized after two bad games, but when you are considered the best franchise in the National Football League, I suppose you are just held to a higher standard.  Regardless, the general attitude was the Pats were done, the Jets were legit, and it was time for a changing of the guard in the AFC East.

Cut to this week. After a convincing win over the New York Jets,the general attitude is that New England has already locked up the East and is a relative guarantee for at least a 2 seed in the AFC. Skip Bayless is on record saying that the division is set in stone and a hot topic for discussion is how easy New England's schedule is to finish out the regular season. The frivolity of the media has been on full display over the last few days, as that imminent dark cloud has now been replaced with a Prozac sun and Lucky Charms rainbows.

And it's pretty great, isn't it? It's like order has finally been restored. The Patriots are once again kings of the NFL.

But let's hold on a minute here, people. It's far from over.

All of this recent playoff talk has my jinx alarm on red alert. This year, more than any other, has been highly affected by karma, spooks, omens, curses, bugaboos, and the breaking of streaks once thought to continue until the end of time. Next thing you know, some jackass is going to bust out some stat about how the Patriots have never missed the playoffs when standing at 6-3 in November when their remaining schedule has a combined winning percentage of less than .40  (note: I just made that stat up. Please, nobody try to verify it). This season has been stressful enough for me as it is; the last thing I need is to have to worry about which particular cosmic force is going to sweep in and ruin my Sunday week in and week out.

That's why I need to take action. Someone needs to counteract all this optimism around here, and it may as well be me. I know things are looking good for the Pats at the moment, but the bottom line is that there are still seven games left to play, and any one of those games could result in a loss. Time to take a look at the flip side of the coin.

Am I about to get overly, almost comically, pessimistic right now? You bet I am. Do I still think that New England is ideally positioned to run the table and secure a first round playoff bye? Absolutely. Will the Patriots make the playoffs this year? I'd be amazed if they didn't.  However, I feel it is my responsibility - not only as a fan, but as a self-professed realist and Official Pats Pulpit Resident Jerk - to balance out all of this rosy merriment with a strong dose of good old-fashioned party-poopery in order to stem the flood of bad vibes that could potentially drown us all if we are not careful. The Patriots are almost guaranteed to be favored for the rest of their matchups, but every team left on New England's schedule presents a different challenge, and nothing is guaranteed in the NFL. So by all means, let's continue to enjoy this win, but as we  look to the future, let's not get ahead of ourselves. Here are the remaining games on New England's schedule, and reasons that each team could pull off a surprise upset.

vs. Kansas City. Tyler Palko has attempted 13 NFL passes in his career. To his credit, he has completed nine of them, giving him a fairly respectable 69.2% completion percentage and career QB rating of 86.1. While these stats do little other than prove how useless stats are, they do hammer home Palko's inexperience as an NFL starter. What this likely means is that the Chiefs will have to greatly simplify their playbook and go fairly run-heavy if they hope to have any success against the Patriots. Fortunately for them, Kansas City has a nice one-two punch in Jackie Battle and Dexter McCluster. Battle is a large, bruising back who is definitely capable of plowing through tackles and picking up sizable yards after contact. McCluster adds a receiving threat out of the backfield and has a great burst off the cut should he be able to find open field.  If the Chiefs can get Battle and McCluster going, they can sustain long, clock-eating drives that keep Tommy B off the field and set up the play-action against New England's inexperienced secondary (much like the way Cleveland did with Peyton Hillis last year). Dwayne Bowe and Steve Breaston are solid receivers capable of burning  hot dog vendors Patriots DBs, and if KC is able to establish the run, both could be wide open when Antwaun Molden and Phillip Adams go all Tracy White on the playfake. The Patriots shouldn't have too much trouble scoring points on the Chiefs, but if the defense can't get off the field, opportunities for putting points on the board could be extremely limited. On the plus side, run defense has been one of New England's strengths this season, so the Chiefs will definitely have their work cut out for them getting the running game established. Still, Battle and McCluster represent a unique backfield duo that New England hasn't seen yet, and it's going to be more important than ever for the Patriots' front four to generate pressure and maintain gap discipline.

At Philadelphia. The nice way to put it is to say that the Eagles have underachieved this season. Kind of like when people tell me that I'm just a tad out of shape. The truth is that I'm a lazy, disgusting slob, and that Philly's season has been an absolute disaster this year. To make matters worse, they seem to play their absolute worst football at home in the fourth quarter and have blown five late leads. While the Eagles' home woes bode well for the Patriots, Lincoln Financial Field is still an extremely tough place to play, and Philadelphia is officially in desperation mode. If the Eagles have any shot at the postseason, they absolutely must win out, meaning their playoffs have already started.  Teams playing with a sense of desperation are always dangerous, and in spite of their season-long struggles, Philly has a lot of talent on both sides of the ball. Michael Vick's health is something to monitor, but I imagine he'll be ready to go by the time this game comes around, and he is an absolute matchup nightmare as a runner. Obviously, if John Skelton can carve up the Eagles' secondary, Tommy B shouldn't have a problem. But a struggling team with a lot of talent that is in absolute must-win mode is always dangerous, especially at home - even if that is where they have been at their worst.

vs. Indianapolis. You know those scenes in movies where the main character dresses up as a woman in order to sneak behind enemy lines? You know how the bad guy always seems to fall in love with "her" and starts to make all those funny yet uncomfortable advances? And you know how the wig or fake boobs always seem to fall off at the worst possible time, making the bad guy realize that he just tried to make time with his sworn enemy and then a big fight ensues? Well that's pretty much what happened to the Colts this year. They've been walking around all kinds of dolled up for a while now, but their wig and fake boobs fell off this season and everyone just realized that they are nothing but some bum in disguise. Peyton Manning has been masking a lot of incompetence for years now, and the Colts' record reflects that. When you build an offense that only one player can run, everything obviously falls apart when that player is gone. That said, I don't see the Colts going winless this year, which means that they are eventually going to beat a team that they have absolutely no business beating. It might be the Patriots, for no other reason that Indy always plays them tough and hurting the Pats' playoff seeding is pretty much the only thing they really have left to play for at this point. I imagine that beating New England and causing them to miss out on a one or two seed would be a great cause for celebration in Indianapolis. Plus, I simply can't shake this feeling that Indy will activate Peyton Manning just for this game, he'll come in and throw for the 4,000 yards and 25 TDs he's good for every year all at once, completely blow the Pats out 270-45 (against this secondary it isn't even all that far-fetched), and then go on injured reserve. Why else would he not be on IR at this point?

at Washington. The Rex Grossman John Beck Rex Grossman show isn't overly intimidating, granted. And now that Albert Haynesworth is gone, there isn't much of a storyline here. I'm honestly having a tough time visualizing any situation where New England doesn't win this one. Santana Moss will likely be back at this point, who is always a receiving threat, and the Skins are capable of running the ball, but I just don't see it. And maybe that's the X factor in this game; there's simply no way New England should lose. The Patriots always seem to drop a game they reeeaally shouldn't lose almost every year, and maybe Washington will be that dud.  Plus, the Pats have had a reputation as of late of making the Shaun Hills of the NFL world look other-worldly, so you never know.

at Denver.  Say what you want about Tim Tebow, the kid wins games. Everyone, including this guy, thinks his recent success is nothing more a flash in the pan and the veer offense isn't sustainable over multiple games, but until Denver loses several times in a row, it's kind of hard to knock it. The good news about Denvers offense is that the Broncos are the one team that New England's secondary matches up very well against. A stout run D will also make it hard to run the option attack, provided the Patriots stay disciplined (unlike, say, Miami in 2008, when the Dolphins unleashed the Wildcat and made New England look like me on the dance floor at a wedding after a few whiskey sours). The bad news is that Tom Brady simply doesn't win games at Mile High Stadium. Tommy B has only 1 career win at Denver, which came off a phenomenal last-minute TD drive after Bill Belichick displayed his coaching genius by taking an intentional safety in order to give his offense better field position. I don't know if it's the altitude, the stadium, or what, but Mile High is Brady's kryptonite and there's no real explanation for it. In Brady's 6 career losses at Denver, I'd argue that Denver was only the better team twice, and even that is a stretch, so absolutely anything could happen here. I actually had this game pegged as a loss at the very beginning of the year, and to be honest it's still the game that worries me the most out of the Patriots' remaining schedule. This could be one of those weeks where everything goes wrong and the AFC playoff race gets a lot tighter than any of us want it to be.

vs. Miami. At home against the Dolphins in December on Christmas Eve? Please don't ruin my holiday, New England. Don't let the Dolphins play the spoiler role they have gotten so damn good at over the years. Don't have the opportunity to lock up either the AFC East or a 1st round bye ruined by a Tony Sparano and his ragtag bunch of miscreants. I'm very hopeful that by the time week 16 rolls around, all New England will have to do is win one of their last two to lock up at least a two seed. Like the Redskins, on paper this is a pretty big mismatch, but Christmas is a magical time when miracles happen and dreams come true. Christmas is also the time when the big guy realizes what the holiday is all about and lets the little guy have one for a change - like that old 80s commercial where Fred Flintsone FINALLY shares his Fruity Pebbles with Barney. That commercial blew my mind. I just hope the Pats are a little more selfish and don't give the Fins an early present.

vs. Buffalo. If New England takes care of business over the next few weeks, this game will be about as meaningful for the Pats as Kim Kardashian's wedding was to the rational American public. Buffalo, however, could be fighting for its playoff life at this point.  How great would it be if this game not only controlled Buffalo's playoff destiny, but the Jets' as well? I would be totally cool with Tommy B playing one series and then giving Julian Edelman the reins at QB for the rest of this game. Just flat out lay down and let the Bills win like 45-0 to send the Jets packing early. Can you imagine the soundbytes that would come out of New York after that? All these Jets players absolutely fuming and ranting about how New England is scared to face them and what a classless move it is to quit on a game just to keep another team out of it. Rex Ryan at the podium all sweaty and red faced ironically blubbering over integrity and tradition, LT on NFL Network babbling about what a bunch of cowards we are, Bart Scott literally stomping his feet and shaking his arms all over the place... it's enough to bring a tear to your eye. Meanwhile, the Pats are just looking down at them with a knowing smirk as they rest up and get ready to play another week of meaningful football. Man, would that be sweet. But I digress. There's definitely a chance that the Bills could continue their current downward spiral and will be well out of playoff contention at this point. And this game could very well have playoff implications for New England, once again making the Bills a potential spoiler. And spoilers are always dangerous (see above).

 

I'm really not trying to rain on the "we just stomped the Jets" parade. I'm still marching in that parade and I will continue to march in that parade long after everyone else has gone home. I also know that I'm kind of grasping at straws here.  I just want us all to keep in mind that anything can happen in this crazy league that we all love so much, and we all have to stay focused and maintain Belichicks' one game at a time philosophy (says the guy that just brought up every game left on the schedule). It's very easy to buy into hype, especially positive hype. I say let the rest of the media get out of hand and we'll all just keep on keepin' on. Have faith in our boys and our coach, stay positive, and get way more nervous when you should every Sunday just before kickoff. It is the greatest indicator of my unhealthy mania works for me.

And if you still aren't nervous, don't worry about it. I'm probably paranoid enough for all of us.

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