The New England Patriots are coming off their Week 14 bye in a comfortable position. They currently own the top seed in the AFC as well as the lead in their division due to their 9-4 record, and have won seven straight following their 2-4 start.
The Patriots are not just in the playoff race, though, but have rather established themselves as one of the favorites in the conference by beating fellow contenders and being one of the hottest teams in football right now. In order to keep their momentum going heading into the playoffs — their chances of making the tournament are 98 percent, according to FiveThirty Eight — they will need to close out the regular season in style, however.
At first glance, doing so should not be a challenge. New England is set to face two teams with a losing record as well as two 7-6 squads — including the Buffalo Bills, who have already lost to the Patriots once right before the bye. It goes without saying, though, that this assessment is quite inaccurate: the Patriots’ final four-game stretch is a challenging one.
With that said, let’s take a look at each game.
Week 15 at Indianapolis Colts (7-6)
The Colts, who are also coming off their bye week, may have played some up-and-down football so far this season but they are very much a team to be taken seriously with the playoffs on the horizon. While it seems unlikely that they will overtake the current AFC South leaders, the 9-4 Tennessee Titans, they are serious candidates to sneak into one of the three wild card spots.
The Colts, after all, are third in the AFC in point differential (+88) behind only the Patriots (+150) and Bills (+134) — something they have accomplished by combining a potent running game and opportunistic defense. In fact, the team is leading the league in yards per rushing attempt and defensive takeaways. Make no mistake, this primetime battle will be an enormous challenge for New England.
Week 16 vs. Buffalo Bills (7-6)
Following their game against Indianapolis, the Patriots will have an extra day of rest going into their rematch with the Bills. They will probably need it given that Buffalo is still one of the best teams in football despite currently only in possession of the seventh playoff seed in the AFC: quarterback Josh Allen is playing at an MVP-caliber level, while the defense is as good as any in the NFL.
Sure, New England won the Monday night matchup in Buffalo but that game should not be indicative of what is to come in Week 16. The weather, after all, is not expected to play that big a factor in the rematch. Accordingly, the Patriots will have to bring their A-game on both sides of the ball to win this potential hat-and-T-shirt game.
Week 17 vs. Jacksonville Jaguars (2-11)
If there is one game on the Patriots schedule that has written “trap” all over it, it might be that one. New England will be coming off back-to-back games against playoff-quality competition, and possible as the owners of the AFC East title. The Jaguars, meanwhile, are one of the worst teams in football but they have beaten both the Bills and the Miami Dolphins.
Still, the Patriots should be able to win this game quite handily. They have the better roster top-to-bottom and have a massive coaching advantage. Bill Belichick’s team falling into this potential trap would be a major surprise regardless of how the Week 15 and Week 16 games go.
Week 18 at Miami Dolphins (6-7)
The Dolphins have quietly become one of the hottest teams in football themselves. Winners of five straight — the third longest such streak behind New England’s (7) and the Kansas City Chiefs (6) — they are still very much alive in the wild card race. Week 18 might be a pivotal game for them, against a familiar opponent.
Miami obviously has already beaten the Patriots before. The two teams’ opening week encounter will have little to no impact on this contest; both clubs have come a long way since early September and might therefore have a lot on the line.
The game against Miami will cap off a difficult stretch of games. The Patriots should be favored to win all four of them, but they need to be playing their best football in order to go 4-0 — a record that might be necessary to win not just the top seed in the conference, but the AFC East title as well.