The New England Patriots are 6-2 heading into their bye week and 2017 marks the 16th time in franchise history that the Patriots have been 6-2 or better halfway through the year. The Patriots have been 6-2 or better 11 times under head coach Bill Belichick and have reached the milestone for the fifth straight season.
On eight of the previous 10 seasons of reaching 6-2 or better, the Patriots have reached the AFC Championship game. In five of those years, they’ve reached the Super Bowl (2003, 2004, 2007, 2014, 2016), and they ended up winning four of them.
But while 6-2 is great, don’t think that the Patriots are getting ahead of themselves after a turbulent start to the year and a bye week on the schedule, and the team captains are making sure of that.
“We’ve just got to take it one game at a time and keep on working hard,” tight end Rob Gronkowski said after beating the Chargers 21-13. “It’s crucial. Bye weeks are huge. We’ve just got to go into this bye week, get better. Everyone’s got bumps and bruises. We’ve got to work those out, get healthy, get your body right and come back next week and just keep on building off what we’ve been doing the last couple weeks – getting wins and just trying to keep getting better at every phase of the game.”
“We’ve got to improve this week,” free safety Devin McCourty echoed when asked about the Patriots 6-2 record. “Eight games to go. We obviously have a chance at 6-2 to do some good things. We’ve got to just take advantage of this week so we’re ready to go for the rest of the season.”
“We know six games aren’t going to do anything for us this year,” fellow free safety Duron Harmon said in reference to the team’s win total. “We’ve got to keep improving. We’ve got to keep winning.”
“I wish we’d be 8-0, but we’re not,” quarterback Tom Brady said. “We’re 6-2 and have to play better over the next couple months, and that’s what we’re going to work toward.”
The Patriots were able to overcome defensive deficiencies in the first four games and offensive struggles over the second four games. The aim for the second half of the season is to get both sides of the ball on the same page and operating at a high level. The Patriots first five games out of the bye are not going to be an easy opportunity to thrive.
“We have all AFC opponents in the second half of the season, so we know each game is going to be important,” Harmon said. “Each game is going to be a must-win game. So we’ll take this break, but then we know that when we come back, it’ll be time to go.”
The Patriots head out to Denver to face the Broncos in week 10 before flying to Mexico City in week 11 to play the Oakland Raiders. Those are back-to-back games in high altitude and while the opponents have not been among the elite in the NFL for 2017, the Patriots have always struggled in Denver and playing on the road in altitude in two straight weeks is not an easy task.
New England then welcomes the hapless Miami Dolphins (that somehow tricked the NFL into a 4-3 record) to Gillette Stadium, before embarking on a three-game road trip with games in Buffalo against the Bills, in Miami against the Dolphins, and in Pittsburgh against the Steelers.
The Bills are playing at a surprisingly high level at 5-2 with impressive wins over the Jets, Broncos, Falcons, Buccaneers, and Raiders and are 4-0 at home. Tyrod Taylor is not making mistakes and the rushing attack is as dynamic as ever on offense and the defense ranks 3rd in the league in points allowed per game.
The Dolphins have some magical power of the Patriots in Miami, while the Steelers are tied with the Patriots at 6-2 atop the AFC. New England has always managed to beat Pittsburgh, but now the Steelers defense is ranked 2nd in the league in points allowed. It won’t be an easy task.
Finally, the Patriots get two-straight home games to close out the year against the Bills and the Jets. The Bills will be a challenge, as previously stated, while this is actually the first time the Patriots and Jets will face each other in the regular season finale during the Bill Belichick era.
If New England can put together a matching 6-2 second half of the season, then they should be in good position to earn a first round bye, so long as one of those victories comes against the Pittsburgh Steelers, but that might not be enough to reach the Super Bowl.
The second half of the season is where the Patriots really separate themselves and prove what type of team they are going to become. Six of the eight Patriots teams that went 7-1 or better over the final eight games reached the Super Bowl, while only the 2014 Patriots reached the Super Bowl going 6-2.
In fact, if the Patriots perform 5-3 or worse, then that’s a bad sign. Only four Patriots teams under Bill Belichick have met this low standard and two of them (2000, 2002) ended up missing the postseason and the other two (2009, 2015) led to huge roster changes the following offseason.
I would expect the Patriots to drop at least one game to an AFC East opponent because they’ve only twice been undefeated in divisional play under Belichick (2007, 2012), with 14 seasons with one or two losses. If New England can sweep their other three games against non-divisional opponents, then the Patriots have a great chance of reclaiming the top seed in the AFC and dictating the postseason.