Ho! Ho! Ho!
It’s Week 15 and your former 2-4 Patriots are not only atop of the AFC East, but tied with the top contenders in the conference. At 9-4 they are currently the No. 1 seed and will own that seed for the playoffs if they win out. That’s big. Trent Brown-big. The 9-4 Titans and Chiefs don’t have that advantage but the Patriots do.
The league’s shiny new 17-game schedule already makes this year more challenging, especially considering the time lost through players testing positive for COVID-19. The playoff bye equals out that extra game. One less game means less chance of a loss, of injuries, of wear-and-tear, fatigue and film study on an extra opponent. The bye is worth fighting for and will be an advantage to the Pats if they earn it.
After some time off, New England is preparing for pseudo rivals, the Indianapolis Colts. Under Belichick the Pats hold a 16-6 edge in the only stats that matter: Wins and losses. The Colts franchise is a different animal, hanging participation banners and constantly getting their trousers in a twist about settling scores that don’t have anything to do with the games being played on the field. Who has that energy? I’m not a fan of pre-game trash talk. Let the players keep their heads in the film room and have a good week of practice. Let the coaches put together an Indy-specific game plan. Let the Patriots go out and do their jobs, win on Saturday, and let the Colts howl in protest afterward about... whatever. All that matters is the W.
Pats go into this one as 5.5 point underdogs. I predict they leave as winners.
Around the AFC East:
2nd - Mike Florio (ProFootballTalk): The No. 1 seed is within their grasp. It’ll be a disappointment at this point if they don’t get it. [nc]
2nd - Mark Maske (Washington Post): The Patriots return from a very late bye week with their winning streak intact at seven and expectations soaring. The bad-weather victory in Buffalo before the bye, with rookie QB Mac Jones throwing only three passes, restored the whatever-it-takes aura of the Patriots. The defense is dominant. Coach Bill Belichick is pushing all the right buttons. But there’s no time to relax, with a key game Saturday night at Indianapolis. [+1]
2nd - Consensus (Bleacher Report): Belichick is, in the opinion of just about everyone, the greatest head coach the NFL has ever seen. But the job he has done in 2021 may be the best of his Hall of Fame career. The Patriots entered this season with zero expectations and a rookie quarterback. They enter Week 15 as the No. 1 seed in the AFC with a healthy lead in the AFC East after beating the Buffalo Bills in a game where the Pats attempted all of three passes.
The Pats have a great defense. Jones appears a perfect fit for Josh McDaniels’ offense. And Darth Hoodie looks to have his sights set on a seventh Super Bowl win of his own. Take that, Tom. [+1]
3rd - Danny Kelly (The Ringer): “The Top Shelf” category. The cream continued to rise to the top in the NFL in Week 14, with the league’s upper-echelon squads further separating themselves from the rest of the pack. The Buccaneers jumped up into the top spot on my rankings with a big win over the Bills on Sunday, but the Packers (who beat the Bears) and Patriots (on bye) aren’t far behind. The increasingly hot Chiefs beat the Raiders to move up to no. 4 while the Rams knocked off the Cardinals in a wild NFC West bout on Monday Night Football. [+1]
3rd - Pete Prisco (CBS Sports): They come off their bye as the top seed in the AFC facing a tough road game at Indianapolis against the Colts. Bill Belichick for NFL Coach of the Year. [+1]
3rd - Russell S. Baxter (Fansided): A year ago, the organization suffered through its first losing season since 2000. And things looked bleak when Bill Belichick’s club dropped four of their first six games this year. But the Patriots have now won seven straight and hold the top spot in the AFC East. Rookie quarterback Mac Jones has been solid and improved on a weekly basis. New England has gotten solid play in the trenches. And the Pats have come up with 26 takeaways in 13 contests. [nc]
3rd - Ryan Dunleavy (NY Post): If the Patriots win out, they get the AFC’s No. 1 seed and only bye. And they will have earned it because it means coming off last week’s bye to beat the Colts, Bills for a second time, Jaguars and the surging Dolphins. Mac Jones (probably) will have to throw more than three passes in those games. [nc]
3rd - Nate Davis (USA Today): Lots of good football coming out of Los Angeles as improving Chargers crack upper tier, while Rams displace Cardinals in Top 5. [+1]
4th - Karen Guregian (Boston Herald): Coming off a bye, they’re in charge of their destiny. Division-wise, they could clinch and officially say bye-bye to Buffalo if they win Saturday in Indianapolis, then beat the Bills at home the following week. [nc]
4th - Frank Schwab (Yahoo! Sports): The Patriots are now two games clear of the Bills in the AFC East. The loss by the Ravens also helped them a little bit, in terms of getting the No. 1 seed. It means they’re under a little less pressure going into a tricky game at Indianapolis on Saturday. [nc]
4th - Darren Hartwell (NBC Sports Boston): The Patriots will have to earn the No. 1 seed, as the Chiefs and Titans kept pace while New England was on bye. But the Patriots also control their own destiny with tiebreakers over every AFC contender thanks to a 7-1 in-conference record. [nc]
4th - Dalton Miller (ProFootballNetwork): Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots are playing better than any team in the NFL during their six-game win streak. In that time, they rank first in offensive and defensive EPA/play. They’ve beaten the Chargers, Browns, and Bills over that stretch. They’ll face the Colts, the Bills again, the Jaguars, and then the surging Dolphins over their final four-game stretch. New England has found their stride offensively, working off the strength that is their outstanding offensive line.
Defensively, J.C. Jackson is proving his status as not just a playmaking cornerback but a lockdown one. But the rest of the defense is playing outstanding football as well. Lawrence Guy is an underrated playmaker in the middle, and the linebackers defend the run at a high level. [nc]
5th - NFL Nation (ESPN): Bill Belichick often talks about playing complementary football, with the three phases of the game weaved together to help produce wins. The FPI numbers show how the Patriots have mostly done that, with strong defense and special teams aiding an offense that has brought rookie quarterback Mac Jones along masterfully as he learns on the job. [-1]
5th - Vinnie Iyer (Sporting News): The Patriots had a good bye week in seeing the Bills lose again in the division but not so much with the Chiefs and Titans keeping things tightened up in the bigger AFC playoff picture. They come back to face the well-rested Colts, who also are now in playoff position a little behind them. [-1]
5th - Dan Hanzus (NFL.com): Bill Belichick was roundly lionized for his decision to put Mac Jones on ice in Orchard Park and turn to his running game in extreme weather conditions, but the Pats took out the Bills because the defense again delivered in the clutch. New England has the NFL’s No. 1 scoring defense (allowing just 15.4 points per game) and the No. 3 total defense (just 310.0 yards per game allowed). The numbers are even better during the team’s seven-game winning streak: Opponents have averaged just over 10 points per game, with the Pats forcing at least one turnover in every one of those contests. Come January, Belichick might be in possession of the only defense in football that counts as a true difference-maker. This could prove to be advantageous. [-1]
5th - Nick Wojton (TouchdownWire): Bye week.
6th - Conor Orr (SI): A punishing win over the Bills before the bye has them refreshed and somewhat comfortable atop the AFC again. Their rematch against Buffalo the day after Christmas is the lone remaining hurdle on a schedule that will finish with games against the Jaguars and Dolphins. Don’t sleep on this Saturday night tilt against the Colts, which could see Bill Belichick’s defense tested more seriously than it has been in months. [-1]
AVG RANK: 3.7 [+0.1]