Heading into Week 14 last year the Patriots were 9-3, coming off a loss (to Green Bay) and on the road to play an 8-4 San Diego team that was still in the hunt for a playoff spot. Denver (9-3) and Cincy (8-3-1) were in hot pursuit and a host of AFC teams were within a game or two of New England.
This year, at the start of the final quarter of the season, the Patriots sit at 10-2, coming off two losses, and heading on the road to play a Texans team that is still in the hunt for a playoff spot. But these Patriots are not in the same position of strength as they were last season. At least not at the moment. If the Patriots can win out, they will be assured of getting one of the top two playoff seeds, and a coveted bye week. Unlike 2014, it won't be a question of mental toughness if they can do it, but a matter of physical health. 'Next man up' is doable. "Next men up,' plural, is proving a more difficult challenge.
Adding to all that's on the line, this game has been flexed to Sunday Night Football and will be officiated by one of the consistently worst referees in the NFL, Jeff Triplette. The way I'm looking at it, the Pats are overdue to have a few bounces go their way, so once again I'm all-in with this team to pull together and pull out a win.
Around the AFC East:
New England (10-2) at Houston (6-6)
NY Jets (7-5) vs. Tennessee (3-9)
Buffalo (6-6) at Philadelphia (5-7)
Miami (5-7) vs. NY Giants (5-7)
Notable AFC Matchups:
Cincinnati (10-2) vs. Pittsburgh (7-5)
Denver (10-2) vs. Oakland (5-7)
Kansas City (7-5) vs. San Diego (3-9)
Indianapolis (6-6) at Jacksonville (4-8)
Baltimore (4-8) vs. Seattle (7-5)
Cleveland (2-10) vs. San Francisco (4-8)
Lorenzo Reyes (USA Today) ranks them 3rd: Go ahead, harp on their No. 3 standing in AFC and first losing streak in three years. Big Daddy Gronk will be back soon.
Frank Schwab (Yahoo! Sports) ranks them 4th: We'll hear a ton this week about the Patriots losing two straight, but we all know deep down they'll be fine. The problem is the rest of the AFC. The Patriots don't control if they get the No. 1 seed anymore, and if they drop any more games they might end up with the No. 3 seed. Then they'd have to win in the first playoff weekend (against Pittsburgh?) and then win at Cincinnati and Denver in back-to-back weeks to make the Super Bowl. That would be tough, to say the least.
Dan Schneier (Fox Sports) ranks them 4th: New England’s passing game is based on timing and continuity, and these have been compromised in an offense that is playing without Rob Gronkowski, Julian Edelman and Dion Lewis. View season trend.
Brent Sobleski (Bleacher Report) ranks them 4th: If Brady thought he had it bad against the Eagles, it could be even worse this weekend against the Houston Texans. J.J. Watt, Jadeveon Clowney and, yes, former Patriot Vince Wilfork will be coming after the future Hall of Fame quarterback. If the Texans can repeat what the Eagles did to Brady and the offensive line, Houston could earn a season-defining victory on Sunday Night Football.
Mark Maske (Washington Post) ranks them 5th: TE Rob Gronkowski should come back soon and WR Julian Edelman could rejoin the lineup sometime thereafter. The Patriots desperately need them. They are not, as presently configured, a Super Bowl-worthy team. QB Tom Brady has far too little help on offense and, perhaps trying to do too much himself, suddenly is making uncharacteristic mistakes. The good news is that James White, who has taken over as the primary receiver out of the backfield, appears capable of doing his part.
Mike Florio (ProFootballTalk) ranks them 5th: "My husband cannot f–king throw the ball and catch the ball at the same time. Oh, wait. Maybe he can."
Elliot Harrison (NFL.com) ranks them 5th: Ugly loss for the Patriots, who, despite making it close in the end, are now taking some punches from fans and analysts around the country. Never mind that the offense is without all of its top playmakers, or the fact that Tom Brady can't get wideouts to even catch the football, much less fight for it. Brady loses some ground in the MVP race -- but there should be considerations made for the way New England receivers dropped three straight passes on the team's final possession. Catch the freaking ball.
Chris Burke (SI) ranks them 5th: Peyton Manning crumbled, Aaron Rodgers hit a rough stretch and now Tom Brady is throwing costly interceptions. It’s like the quarterback ghosts are visiting us for some NFL version of "A Christmas Carol," and, oh, Matt Ryan will wake up tomorrow realizing he needs to change his game.
Vinnie Iyer (Sporting News) ranks them 5th: Tom Brady and their offensive injuries look like a culprit, but don't forget the one on defense. Linebacker Dont'a Hightower was a big loss against the run.
ESPN Experts rank them 5th: The Patriots have lost back-to-back games for the first time since 2012. The injuries on offense hurt, but the team has allowed 30 points in back-to-back games for just the second time since 2001.
Pete Prisco (CBS Sports) ranks them 5th: The last two weeks have dropped them to the third spot in the AFC. They've had so many injuries.
John McClain (Houston Chronicle) ranks them 5th: When the Patriots play at the Texans, they’ll be trying to avoid their first three-game losing streak since the 2002 season.
Danny Kelly (SB Nation) ranks them 5th: While the Patriots held the top spot in these rankings from Weeks 2-12, they've lost two in a row and are certainly showing signs of fading after losing several key players on both sides of the ball. The good news is that Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski should return this season, but New England is now on the outside looking in for that ever-important home-field advantage in the playoffs.
Dan Parzych (Rant Sports) ranks them 5th: We know the New England Patriots are dealing with too many injuries on offense, but what on earth happened against the Eagles? This team made too many mistakes they normally don't make and now all of a sudden they don't seem to be a lock for the No. 1 seed after back-to-back losses.
The AP Pro32 ranks them 5th.
Pat Kirwan (CBS Sports) ranks them 6th: Bill Belichick, Tom Brady and company have lost two in a row for the first time since 2012. Now that the Patriots have fallen to the third seed in the AFC (without threat of falling any further), they can focus on getting healthy and getting ready for the playoff push.
Peter King (The MMQB) ranks them 7th: The Patriots will be a premier team when it counts, either on the weekend of Jan. 10 or 17. Until then, what does it matter than they’re the seventh or 27th team in the NFL?
AVERAGE RANK: 4.9