As the New England Patriots enjoy their much-deserved bye, it seems like the popular thing to do around here is take a look back at these first nine weeks, assess how the Pats are doing at the midway point, and hand out grades on the 2013 season so far. And while that's all well and good, I think it's a little more interesting to look ahead at the games still left on the schedule and try to see what New England still has to accomplish in order to set themselves up for a favorable playoff position and a serious Super Bowl run. After they return from their break, we enter into a relatively difficult stretch of the schedule which is very likely to determine the postseason fate of several teams. And while this season has been as wild and erratic as any in recent memory, that's no reason not to take a look at the remaining games and try to predict how New England is going to finish out the year.
After all, I can't think of one possible way that trying to predict how the rest of the 2013 season will play out can come back to haunt me. Just not possible. Getting these predictions out there won't have any negative repercussions whatsoever. I mean seriously - what can go wrong?
(Note to football gods: I will be making the necessary sacrifices to you all this Saturday as the First Quarter Moon is at its zenith, as per the guidelines of The Ancient Ones. In return I humbly ask that you take this article as nothing more than the feeble attempt of desk jockey to pass the time at a job he was never meant to do as he desperately avoids performing any of the mind-numbing, boring, relentlessly oppressive duties that are slowly crushing his soul and reducing him to a fat pile of jiggly sadness. Amen and thank you.)
So here are the remaining games on the schedule, and how I think the Patriots will fare in each.
At Panthers, Monday November 18th. Tommy B in Primetime coming off a bye? Yes please. This game is no longer the cakewalk that it was slated to be at the beginning of the season, as Carolina's defense is rock solid and Cam Newton finally seems to have figured out how to be an NFL quarterback. Carolina has also won three out of four at home and have put together four straight wins. However, the Panthers are too inconsistent on offense, and they have yet to beat a team with a winning record (or anything even close to a winning record, for that matter). They also have to face the Niners this weekend in San Francisco, which is sure to be a battle, and having to travel back across the country to face a well-rested Patriots squad with several players returning from injury is a tall order. Result: Win.
Vs. Broncos, Sunday November 24th. When talks first surfaced about Wes Welker possibly not being a Patriot anymore, I mentioned how my nightmare scenario was Welker going to Denver. Then when Welker went to Denver, I mentioned how my nightmare scenario was a New England Patriots at Denver Broncos AFC Championship Game in which the Patriots went into halftime with a 24-6 lead, having picked off Peyton Manning once and forced a fumble as the defense rolled, only to see Manning come storming back, scoring 17 unanswered points to bring the Broncos back into it, New England getting a field goal to go up 27-23, then Manning driving down the field for a touchdown to make it 30-27. New England wouldn't be able to score on their ensuing drive, forcing a punt, knowing that one first down will be all Manning needs to run out the clock. After the first pass falls incomplete and Montee Ball runs for four yards, the Broncos are facing 3rd and 6 on their own 27 yard line. Manning hits Welker for eight yards and the Broncos go on to win the game. The only way this nightmare scenario can unfold for me is if the game is played in Denver, which means that Denver has to own some kind of tiebreaker. Result: Loss.
(Note to the football gods: please, please, PLEASE don't allow this to happen. I will sacrifice anything you want, including one of my own limbs, to avoid a Denver over New England AFCC Victory in the manner I just described. Just say the word, and my foot is yours. Hell, you can have both feet and a thumb. Just don't make me live through that.)
At Texans, Sunday December 1st. What was initially pegged as one of the marquis matchups of 2013 has lost much of its luster, courtesy of a full-on Houston nosedive as the Texans limp through one of their most disappointing seasons in franchise history. The quarterback situation is a mess, the head coach is sidelined, the running back can't stay on the field, and the offense as a whole can't seem to get the ball in the end zone. This game still isn't going to be a pushover, as Houston is tough at home and the Texans have had this matchup circled on their calendar since late January, but the Patriots should have enough offensive weapons and enough confusing blitz packages to get out of there with the victory. Result: Win.
Vs. Browns, Sunday December 8th. Is Cleveland good this year? Are they bad? And who is their quarterback? All good questions, but irrelevant for this particular game. New England already lost their game they had no business losing when they blew it against the Jets, so any chance that the Browns had of pulling off an upset got pushed out the door along with Joe Vellano and one of the lamest rules in the NFL rulebook. If the Texans game turns into a battle, there's always a chance for an emotional letdown, but the Patriots don't lose at home, and they certainly don't lose to the Cleveland Browns at home. Result: Win.
At Dolphins, Sunday December 15th. Back when the schedule first came out, I had the Patriots splitting with the Dolphins on the year, winning at home and losing on the road. And while I'm tempted to stick with that preseason prediction, I just see these two teams trending in completely opposite directions right now and don't think Miami will be able to hang. Granted, they did just beat the Bengals, so their defense remains dangerous, but ultimately I can't in good confidence see the Dolphins competing with the Patriots offensively, particularly in December when they play their best football and in a game that may help to determine playoff seeding. It may be another battle, but New England should be able to complete the season sweep. Result: Win.
At Ravens, Sunday December 22nd. We all know what happened to the Patriots last time they went to Baltimore for a Primetime game, so who's to say that the same won't happen again, replacement refs be damned? There's definitely a chance that Baltimore is out of the playoff hunt by this point in the season and have nothing left to play for besides ruining the Patriots' chances for a playoff bye; if that's the case, expect the Ravens to treat this game like their Super Bowl, much the way they did in 2007 and almost ruined New England's perfect season. Since this is a night game, everything significant in terms of playoff seeding will already have happened, and so both teams will come into the matchup knowing exactly what's at stake. To be honest, records, past performance, statistics, and reputation simply don't matter when the Ravens play the Patriots, and this is going to be another huge dogfight that leaves both sides a bruised, bloody mess. Odds are that whoever has the ball last is going to win this one, and because of that I just flipped a coin to make my pick: heads the Pats win, tails the Ravens do. It came up tails. Result: Loss.
Vs. Bills, Sunday December 29th. The Bills have never beaten the Patriots at Gillette, and I don't see the last game of the season being the one that suddenly breaks that streak. In a perfect world, this game wouldn't matter at all, but the way this season is going, I don't think that the AFC playoff picture will be fully settled until the regular season is over. The Patriots are phenomenal at home, they have historically owned the Bills as of late, and are damn near unbeatable when the game has direct playoff implications. Because of that, New England should run away with this one. Even if they already have their playoff spot locked in and opt to rest the starters for much of the game, I still don't see Buffalo coming into town and ending the 2013 season on a bad note. Result: Win.
Final Record: 12-4, #2 Seed. 12-4 is one win more than I initially predicted, and should be enough for a first round bye, so I'm happy with that. It may mean that we have to travel to Denver as my worst nightmare continues to manifest itself, but I'm not going to start worrying about that just yet. Far more important right now is getting everyone healthy and in the right mental state to go hard for the rest of the year. And next up is Carolina - getting a win there will start everything off on the right foot and continue to build on the momentum generated from last Sunday's game.