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Final Stretch Will Challenge the Patriots' Mental Toughness

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After getting punched in the gut and kicked in the groin, the Patriots must find a way to respond with their own counterpunch.

These have now become must win games for the Patriots Home Field Advantage in the playoffs.
These have now become must win games for the Patriots Home Field Advantage in the playoffs.
Stew Milne-USA TODAY Sports

The Patriots started off the season 10-0, even though there were numerous red flags from the Giants and Bills games. The Patriots had a two-score lead on Denver and made an egregious special teams error that opened the floodgates for their opponent to get back into the game and ultimately beat the Patriots. The same story happened against the Philadelphia Eagles. In both cases, the Patriots looked like a team that was clearly missing their star players. In 2014, the Patriots were rather lucky with their injury situation after getting brutalized in 2013 and 2015. The Houston Texans are certainly not going to take pity on the Patriots for that. After suffering back to back defeats where everything just collapsed on top of them, the Patriots definitely have some soul-searching to do on Monday and Tuesday.

The Patriots offense has finally started to suffer from attrition and injuries at both the offensive line and at the receiver position. Nate Solder and Dion Lewis are gone for the year, Julian Edelman is down until the very end of the regular season, Danny Amendola is battling a minor PCL injury, and Gronk is battling a knee bruise that the Patriots should approach very conservatively. With the absence of the guys at the top of the depth chart, that means the guys behind them need to prove they are reliable. Of all the players now getting new playing time only James White has proven to be somewhat useful in the passing game. Scott Chandler, Brandon LaFell, and Keshawn Martin have had their moments but are still very inconsistent and struggle to separate in coverage. The Patriots also have two unknowns in recent acquisitions of Damaris Johnson and Trey Williams. Johnson is a Darren Sproles type guy with great speed and returning ability and Trey Williams is your prototypical scat back. I have to wonder if either guy gets a chance to prove themselves moving foward.

On the defensive side of the ball, the Patriots have two solid CBs in Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan. Behind them, there isn't a lot of reliable depth with Justin Coleman battling a hand injury that's kept him out of 3 games and Rashaan Melvin. The Patriots also have a similar problem at LB, where they have two Pro Bowl caliber players in Dont'a Hightower and Jamie Collins, but both haven't been able to stay on the field together for the last five games. Jerod Mayo has proven to be still serviceable when the Patriots need a 3rd linebacker, so hopefully Hightower's return from injury helps the defense defend the run better and most importantly get Jonathan Freeny off the field. I'm not sure when Coleman will return and I think Hightower will be back soon. The number one weakness for the Patriots defense is they can't buy a turnover, which is really the only issue that keeps them from being a Top 5 defense in the league. They do a good job at preventing opponent scoring opportunities and limiting the yards their opponent gains, but can't get a turnover when they need one.

With their backs against the wall and people starting to doubt their chances of capturing a Super Bowl, the Patriots have only one answer. To prove they are the best in the AFC, it starts by beating Houston. Houston is a team that is fighting for a Wild card spot in the AFC and they're certainly capable of beating the Patriots. The Patriots showed they were willing to fight to the end, creating a final chance on offense to tie the game despite the game already being iced. One of the defining traits of the championship team from last year was their mental fortitude. After being counted out after a humiliating loss to the Kansas City Chiefs, the Patriots carpet-bombed the Top teams in the AFC. I'm not suggesting that the Patriots have to blow out Houston 45-10 or we should write them off, but they certainly need to stop repeating the mistakes that plagued them the last 4 games.

The final four games are very crucial and none of them will be easy. The Patriots will have three road games, with two of them coming against playoff hopefuls. The other two teams are well out of the playoff race, but certainly won't treat this as a rollover game. The Patriots need to go 4-0 down this stretch to clinch a playoff bye and put themselves in position to take the #1 seed if they can get some help from the AFC North. If the Patriots go 4-0 down this stretch, I'm very optimistic about their Super Bowl chances this year. I did have 13-3 with losses to Denver, Miami, and a clunker game, so that's my prediction. Patriots go 3-1, finish with the top seed in the AFC because Pittsburgh decides to be helpful.