For the past two weeks, the New England Patriots found themselves on the doorstep of the NFL playoffs but failed to enter each time. On Sunday, however, they finally cleared that hurdle thanks to a 34-13 road victory over the Cincinnati Bengals. While the win does neither clinch the division for the Patriots nor earn them a first-round playoff bye, it does position the team well with only two games left in the regular season.
After all, New England now at least has an opportunity to participate in the postseason dance for the 11th year in a row. While it may seem like business-as-usual for the most successful team of the salary cap era — one that has made the playoffs 21 times since the league introduced the cap ahead of the 1994 season — the Patriots themselves made quick to point out that they know a spot in the final 12 is far from guaranteed.
“It means a lot. You play this game to have a chance to play in the postseason. For our football team, to be able to accomplish that means a lot. You can never take it for granted,” said special teams ace Matthew Slater, who registered a forced fumble against the Bengals, after Sunday’s game — all while also taking taking the brief look ahead: “We’re excited about that but there’s a lot of hard work ahead of us.”
“You play to keep playing. You win four, five, six games... you don’t really get anything for doing that,” added head coach Bill Belichick during his postgame press conference. “When you can win enough to play in the postseason, that is one of our goals. It’s a good thing. We can continue our season. You take things one game at time and continue to get better. We’ll continue to improve. We try to play good football in all three phases of the game.”
Thanks to its win in Cincinnati, New England is now one of four games in the AFC to have already locked up a spot in the playoffs. While the final seeding in the conference has yet to be finalized — the 11-3 Patriots are currently in the second spot, ahead of a 10-4 Kansas City Chiefs team that owns the head-to-head tiebreaker — the club will knows that it will be joined by the Chiefs, Baltimore Ravens and Buffalo Bills once the tournament starts.
As Devin McCourty pointed out after the win over the Bengals, however, the Patriots are not looking too far ahead at this point. After all, this approach is what allowed them to make the playoffs yet again: “I think it starts with the mentality of one game at a time. Just stringing them together, and trying to play good games and being in position. That’s one thing we do a good job of, is giving ourselves a chance.”
“There’s ups and downs in a season, but I think, at the end of the day, we always give ourselves a chance,” continued the 32-year-old who has never missed the playoffs since he was drafted by the Patriots in the first round back in 2010. “Because of that, next week we’ll have a chance to play for a [division] championship. That’s what you want. You want to have a chance to do that, and making the playoffs is always a part of the season.”
“Just take this, and move forward,” added running back Rex Burkhead, who scored a 33-yard rushing touchdown against his former club on Sunday and will play in his fifth playoff tournament since entering the league with the Bengals in 2013. “Don’t go back. We didn’t play a perfect game today. We have some small things to fix. Our ability to hone in on those things will be big. We have a lot more football to be played.”
More football already awaits the Patriots this Saturday: the team will host the Bills in a so-called hat and T-shirt game that could end with New England claiming another division title. Needless to say that the games are only getting bigger from here on out, and clinching a postseason berth made this possible against the Bengals.