The Patriots had a bye in Week 9, but stayed in the Top 5 with AFC challenger Kansas City losing to the Dallas Cowboys on the road and the Pittsburgh Steelers also inactive. Even though the Patriots numbers did not decline, the Rams shot past the Patriots in the standings, causing them to fall to the 4th spot on the stat rankings spreadsheet at the Week 10 checkpoint. Another team has shot up towards the top of the pack in the Jacksonville Jaguars, finishing just behind the Patriots. Jacksonville could prove to be a difficult opponent for the Patriots in a January match-up if the team that beat Pittsburgh and Houston shows up and not the one that got trounced by the Rams.
New England Patriots 63 (4th): Offense 71 (2nd), Defense 41 (24th), Special Teams 64 (4th), Schedule 79 (3rd)
The Patriots for the most part stayed the same on the rankings with the schedule going down because of strength of schedule and strength of victory approaching .500 due to multiple opponents on the Patriots schedule playing each other. The Patriots are still projected to finish 12-4 and the top record in the AFC. The Philadelphia Eagles slipped ahead of the Patriots in the offensive rankings during the bye week when they trounced the New York Giants 52-17. The Patriots do see a tough schedule out of the break given they will be playing a lot of road games and against teams in the division. Of the Patriots 3 AFC division opponents, only the Dolphins look like a hot mess on the field. 13 wins again is the goal for the Patriots to win Home Field in the AFC playoffs, although the Patriots are currently 3-2 at home and 3-0 on the road. Patriots defense will have to continue to improve because it’s currently the team’s fatal flaw against an offense that’s patient and able to march down the field in 13-15 plays. The defense needs to improve on first and second down to force longer conversion situations and by doing that should get more stops.
Week 10 Opponent Denver Broncos 45 (24th): Offense 36 (28th), Defense 61 (7th), Special Teams 38 (30th), Schedule 42 (22nd)
The Broncos on paper look like a football team with no direction on offense and special teams to the point where a good defense cannot overcome it like 2015. The Broncos started the season 2-0, but have lost 4 of their last 5 games to fall to 3-5, mostly because of poor offensive line and QB play overall. Trevor Siemian has been benched for Brock Osweiler, who was ran out of Houston after a miserable year as the Texans QB. Denver’s defense presents a significant challenge, especially at Mile High, carrying playmakers at every level of the defense and if the Patriots #2 ranked offense isn’t up to the challenge, could turn into a low-scoring slugfest. That type of game could favor Denver’s superior conditioning at high altitude, although the key will be to get up two scores. At the same time, it’s an opportunity for the Patriots defense to gain confidence and continue to improve against an offense that’s capable of putting up chunk plays, although hasn’t run anywhere near peak efficiency. While Denver is unlikely to head to the playoffs, this is a good test for the Patriots to handle a hostile environment with plenty of tough road games left on the regular season schedule.
NFL Top 10:
- Philadelphia Eagles: 71 (8-1)
- Los Angeles Rams: 65 (6-2)
- Minnesota Vikings: 63 (6-2)
- New England Patriots: 63 (6-2)
- Jacksonville Jaguars: 62 (5-3)
- New Orleans Saints: 62 (6-2)
- Pittsburgh Steelers: 61 (6-2)
- Dallas Cowboys: 58 (5-3)
- Carolina Panthers: 58 (6-3)
- Kansas City Chiefs: 58 (6-3)
AFC Seeding: Based off the AFC teams’ current scores and less reflective of their record overall. In addition to listing, I will also highlight the team’s potential fatal flaw in a postseason game and how their opponents can exploit them.
- New England Patriots: The Patriots depend on their offense and special teams to put their opponent behind the scoreboard early and force teams to play to their terms. The best way to upset New England is to slow down their offense during the early stages of the game and establish the game at the tempo you want your team to play. That also means taking what the Patriots defense gives you and using that to march down the field. This year’s defense has been less elastic than in year’s past, allowing the most yards per play and per drive in the NFL through Week 10. Long drives on offense and stiffening defense in the Red Zone is the best way to counter the Patriots right now.
- Jacksonville Jaguars: Blake Bortles is still the Jaguars QB, although they’re asking him to do less. They depend on their running backs to move the chains and put Bortles in manageable situations, in which he’s done a solid job. Leonard Fournette and Chris Ivory are the main ball carriers on the ground with over 200 carries, so the key to stopping the Jaguars is take away the running game and make Bortles have to throw it into coverage.
- Pittsburgh Steelers: The Steelers defense looks improved from 2016, but how much of it has been their opponents and how much is an improvement in scheme? The Steelers defense are carrying mostly the same players that Tom Brady shredded apart in January for 36 points. The Steelers still have Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown playing as well as ever, but QB Ben Roethlisberger’s play has declined from a strong 2016 season to just good enough in 2017. Once again, the game plan is to take away Bell and Brown and make other guys beat you. The Steelers are better equipped to battle that game plan with the emergence of Juju Smith-Schuster as a secondary receiver in the offense. That could create some match-up problems for the Patriots secondary, whereas back in January the Steelers watched Sammie Coates and Cobi Hamilton struggle to catch the football even when they had separation. The best way to beat the Steelers is to score first and make them continuously play catch-up. Roethlisberger will make an unforced error in that situation and that will be his team’s undoing.
- Kansas City Chiefs: The Chiefs present a unique challenge to the Patriots with arguably being the most well-rounded team outside of the Patriots the last 5 seasons. They don’t turn the ball over, they’re strong in the red zone, and they have outstanding special teams. This year, it’s not quite the same. Their offense is electric, but their defense has become porous with the injury to Eric Berry in Week 1 and their offense has struggled to put up points of late, scoring a measly 48 points in their 3 game losing streak. They have a history of giving the Patriots problems with two soul crushing wins in the regular season, although the Patriots handled the Chiefs fine in the one postseason match-up. The key will be to play from ahead and force Alex Smith to beat you as a passer, that means don’t let him move around or escape the pocket, on short stuff.
- Buffalo Bills: The Bills have come a bit out of nowhere, especially after many people didn’t have high expectations for a franchise that went through wholesale changes. Those changes worked as the Bills have played much better to start things off, although I think their success is a product of an easy schedule to start things off. They’re 5-3 playing the Jets twice (1-1), while also beating the Broncos, Raiders, Bengals, and Buccaneers, a who’s who for football teams trending in the wrong direction. They will have a chance to show how good they truly are with their next 4 games being against the Saints, Chargers, Chiefs, and Patriots. However, I do think the best way to counter the Bills is to take away their running game and force Tyrod Taylor to have to play pocket passer. The Bills defense can be exploitable for a patient offense as the Bills largely thrive on turnovers to make stops with a defense that can be stretched at times.
- Tennessee Titans: The last playoff spot currently goes to the Titans over the Jets, although there isn’t much separation between the two. Their defense and special teams have been as good as last year, but their offense has taken a step backwards despite all the major moves they made to bolster an offense that lacked speed although they were fine. Mariota has battled injuries and while the numbers look a lot worse he’s fine overall. The Titans offense has struggled on 3rd downs, which is what hurts them on sustaining drives and scoring touchdowns in the red zone. The key will be to force long 3rd down situations on offense while also forcing the Titans to play from behind because they have an excellent run game and are a tough opponent to catch up to. This is a team that is capable of doing more, which can outright scary if that team ever clicks.