Week 16 already? It’s that late-in-the-season time of year again - watching NFL games on Saturday AND Sunday with the Christmas tree up, the house decorated and the festive food kicked up a few notches. It’s football in December: The Patriots have steamrolled their way to the playoffs as usual, finish up with a couple of easy division games and hold firm atop the rankings at ... 6th place? What? Ho. Ho. Ho.
Welcome to the 2019 Patriots. No cruise-control for this team. On Saturday the Patriots face the hungry 10-4 Bills, who can almost taste the post-game locker room champaign spray of an AFC East division title. In fairness, the Pats merely use those hats and T-shirts to mop off the sweat after the game —but this isn’t like prior years. Every game is a struggle, every win is a fight, and the Patriots offense will have a battle on its hands vs. the Buffalo defense. Early odds have New England 7-point favorites at home. My prediction is Tom Brady slaps some duct tape on his elbow, (Julian Edelman gets two rolls), they all do their jobs and win by ten. Getcha popcorn ready.
Around the AFC East:
2nd - Russell S. Baxter (Fansided): Recap: The Patriots haven’t lost three consecutive games since the 2002 season. And after setbacks to the Texans Chiefs, Bill Belichick’s club was looking to avoid such a fate when they traveled to Cincinnati to face the one-win Bengals. A victory would put the franchise in the playoffs for an 11th consecutive year, extending their own NFL record. New England actually trailed 10-7 in the second quarter but would limit the Bengals to a field goal the remainder of the afternoon. Belichick’s team came up with five more takeaways, including four interceptions of Andy Dalton. Cornerback Stephon Gilmore had two thefts, returning one of those picks 64 yards for a score. Next Week: The Pats host the vastly-improved Bills on a Saturday afternoon and Belichick’s squad is in position to sweep this series for the third consecutive year. In Week 4 at Buffalo, New England’s defense picked off four passes in a hard-earned 16-10 victory. All told, the Patriots have won the last six games in this AFC East rivalry. Playoff Hopes: As expected, Belichick’s club is headed back to the postseason again and the win at Cincinnati featured the club’s calling card this year in the form of opportunistic defense. The Patriots are now in position to claim the AFC East for the 11th consecutive season with a victory at home over the Bills next Saturday afternoon.
4th - Tom E. Curran (NBC Sports Boston): AFC Rankings: They scored more than 30 for the first time since they had Sam Darnold seeing ghosts back in October. Of course, to do it against the 1-13 Bengals, they needed a pick-six and three other occasions in which they took over in Cincy territory and scored. The inconsistency of the offense against teams that are competent — like the Bills — is an issue for the Pats.
4th - Pat Yasinkas (TouchdownWire): There’s been a lot of debate about whether or not the Patriots really are a team with the ability to win the Super Bowl. Ordinarily, a 34-13 victory would be enough to silence critics. But that’s not the case for the Patriots this week. They defeated the one-win Bengals and struggled a bit in the first half before taking control of the game. That’s not going to impress anyone. But the bottom line is the Patriots ended a two-game losing streak and stayed on track to earn a first-round bye. Say what you want about an offense that has sputtered at times this season. Tom Brady threw for only 128 yards (and two touchdowns) at Cincinnati. But Brady still is Brady, and Bill Belichick remains the coach. That means the Patriots are capable of anything at anytime.
5th - Pete Prisco (CBS Sports): The defense had a big day against the Bengals to get the team back on track. Now they face a huge division game with the Bills.
5th - Mark Maske (Washington Post): The Patriots are engulfed in scandal once more. And they got back to winning Sunday in Cincinnati. Maybe that’s a coincidence. Maybe it’s not. But the Patriots do seem to thrive whenever it is perceived as them against the world, don’t they? It didn’t hurt to be facing the dreadful Bengals, of course.
5th - Frank Schwab (Yahoo! Sports): Julian Edelman is dealing with numerous injuries, and had just a pair of catches for 9 yards on Sunday. The Patriots’ offensive struggles have been discussed endlessly, and they’re not getting better if Edelman can’t be effective through his injuries.
6th - NFL Nation (ESPN): Offseason in two words: Tom Brady. For the first time in his 20-year career, Brady will be an unrestricted free agent, and the Patriots can’t assign the franchise tag to him. So there is intrigue as to how it will all unfold. Will Brady retire? Re-sign in New England? Play elsewhere? Even Brady himself has said he doesn’t know the answer at this point, and he has approached the season by saying everything is a bonus at this point.
6th - Mike Cole (NESN): It was just like old times Sunday for the Patriots, who rode their defense to a seemingly one-sided game against a terrible team. Meanwhile, baby steps on offense are cause for celebration, which makes you wonder whether they’ll be able to score enough in the playoffs against better defenses.
6th - Dan Hanzus (NFL.com): On the same day Patriots footage of the Bengals’ sideline aired on a live NFL pregame show, the defending Super Bowl champions went about their business in a 34-13 win over football’s worst team. Once again, New England won for reasons other than quarterback play: The Pats rushed for a season-high 175 yards, and the defense picked off Andy Dalton four times, with Stephon Gilmore returning one for a touchdown. Gilmore had two interceptions in the game (and nearly a third) and co-leads the league with six on the season. Tom Brady continues to struggle. The quarterback threw two touchdown passes, but missed several open receivers and finished with just 128 yards. He posted a minuscule 4.4 yards per attempt -- the third time in five weeks the three-time MVP has averaged less than 5 yards per attempt. For context, Brady hasn’t finished a season under 6.9 yards per attempt in the last 12 years.
7th - Lindsay Jones (The Athletic): It seems the rest of The Athletic’s staff must have listened to the NFL Power Rankings podcast last week, in which Amy Parlapiano and I repeatedly said we didn’t understand how the Patriots didn’t fall even a couple of spots after back-to-back losses. The Pats finally slipped two spots, but after a win this time. Don’t let the final score (34-14) in Cincinnati fool you: The Patriots offense still doesn’t look anywhere close to right heading into their biggest game of the season Saturday against Buffalo.
7th - Consensus (Bleacher Report): It was a rough week for the defending Super Bowl champions. There were questions swirling around the team after back-to-back losses, the kerfuffle over a team employee videotaping the Bengals sideline in Week 14 and the investigation by the NFL because of it. Those questions started to amplify when the Patriots entered the second quarter in Cincinnati on Sunday trailing 10-7, but they took the lead just before halftime and then apparently remembered they were playing the Bengals, blasting Cincy 21-3 in the second half. However, New England’s passing-game woes continued. Playing against one of the league’s worst defenses, Tom Brady threw for just 128 yards on 15-of-29 passing. The Patriots didn’t crack 300 total yards of offense as a team. In Davenport’s opinion, that’s cause for real concern. “You can’t ever count the Patriots out,” he said, “but this is the most flawed 11-win team in recent memory. The Patriots offense is offensive, and while New England will win the AFC East again and probably hang onto the No. 2 seed in the AFC, it’s getting more and more difficult to imagine these Patriots beating Baltimore or Kansas City in the playoffs.” “Obviously, the offense isn’t what it used to be, including the play of Brady,” Sobleski chimed in. “Yes, the Patriots defense is still ranked No. 1 overall, but there are some cracks. First, the group ranks in the bottom half of the league by allowing 4.3 yards per carry. Also, no one along the defensive line can consistently win one-on-one matchups. This team is still quite good, but not quite as good as it once was.”
7th - Peter Botte (NY Post): For all of the hand-wringing over Tom Brady’s shaky play and the most recent cheating accusations, the Patriots extended their own NFL record Sunday by clinching an 11th consecutive postseason berth. Bill Belichick’s team can seal its 16th AFC East title in 17 seasons Saturday with a season-series sweeping win over the improved Bills. The Pats pulled out a tight 16-10 win in Buffalo in Week 4.
7th - Mike Florio (ProFootballTalk): What would Bill Belichick do to slow down Lamar Jackson in the playoffs? Hopefully, we’ll all get to find out.
7th - Vinnie Iyer (Sporting News): The Patriots were slow out of the gate in Cincinnati like they are in most games, and their passing still failed to light it up. But New England got rolling with its running game, big-play defense and special teams in a much-needed win game before the key rematch with the red-hot Bills.
8th - MMQB Staff (SI): After a dodgy first half, the Patriots pulled away for a needed W. The defense appears to be embracing its role as the most important part of the offense, generating five takeaways that led to 17 New England points. Stephon Gilmore (two INTs, including this pick-six) continues a DPOY-candidate season while the Pats found more success running the ball (175 team rush yards) than they have all year.
9th - Nate Davis (USA Today): Why doesn’t Stephon Gilmore get more defensive player of the year love? He’s scored on two pick-sixes but hasn’t been beaten for TD all season.
9th - Dan Parzych (NFLSpinzone): Despite how close things were early on, was anyone really nervous about the possibility of the New England Patriots coming up short against the Cincinnati Bengals when looking at how the two teams have compared all year? Forget all of the controversy surrounding the Patriots over the last week, as it seemed pretty clear this would be an easy victory for New England since the Bengals only had one win to their name entering Week 15.
In a way, Sunday’s game seemed to come at the perfect time for the Patriots after suffering two tough losses in a row to the Houston Texans and Kansas City Chiefs since even a team like New England needs a confidence booster every once in a while.
By defeating the Bengals, it will be up to the Patriots to show once again in Week 16 they do in fact deserve a potential first-round bye with a much tougher game against the Buffalo Bills.
Tom Brady and company were able to come out victorious during the first meeting between these AFC East rivals earlier in the year, but with the Bills continuing to fight for their playoff lives each week, this will be a completely different battle the second time around.
AVERAGE RANK: 6.1 (-0.1)