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Preview: Second-half schedule makes top-5 draft pick a realistic possibility for Patriots

New England is heading into the stretch run of its season at 2-8 and as one of the worst teams in the NFL.

Buffalo Bills (25) Vs. New England Patriots (29) At Gillette Stadium Photo by Tanner Pearson/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Exiting their bye week at 2-8 and as one of the worst teams in the NFL, the New England Patriots seemingly have little to play for over their final seven games of the season. With their playoff chances virtually zero, the “best” outcome might be to secure a top position in next year’s draft to inject some much-needed talent into the roster.

Looking at the journey ahead, the Patriots might actually be able to do that. While only three of their seven opponents actually have a winning record, several high-profile opponents and teams still very much alive in the race for playoff positioning can be found.

With that being said, let’s dive straight in to see what awaits Bill Belichick and company.

Week 12 at New York Giants (3-8): Even though they did not have the league’s worst record entering Week 11, the Giants very much looked like the NFL’s worst team: they were down to their third-string quarterback, and neither their offense nor their defense provided much hope for a turnaround. And then, they went on to beat the Washington Commanders in convincing fashion 31-19 to celebrate their third victory of the season to show that they cannot be slept on. | Sunday, Nov. 26, 1 p.m. ET

Week 13 vs. Los Angeles Chargers (4-6): The perpetually disappointing Chargers continued their underwhelming season on Sunday, losing 23-20 to the then-3-6 Green Bay Packers. Even though L.A. has one of the most talented quarterbacks in the league under center in Justin Herbert, he and the rest of the team have been unable to consistently play winning football; their bottom-third defense in particular has had its issues this year. | Sunday, Dec. 3, 1 p.m. ET

Week 14 at Pittsburgh Steelers (6-4): Despite a net total of -29 points and being out-gained in every single game they played this season, the Steelers are 6-4 and the current seventh seed in the AFC. One of the most perplexing teams in football this year, they are the anti-Chargers in a way: whereas Los Angeles finds ways to loose games, the Steelers somehow are able to win them so far. | Thursday, Dec. 7, 8:15 p.m. ET

Week 15 vs. Kansas City Chiefs (7-2): The reigning Super Bowl winners are again one of the best teams in football this season. Led by a Hall of Fame head coach (Andy Reid) and quarterback (Patrick Mahomes) and featuring several other blue-chip players all over their roster, they are the current No. 1 seed in the AFC and well-positioned to become the first team since the 2004 Patriots to repeat as champions. This season, however, their offense has not been the main reason for that: Kansas City currently ranks second in scoring defense, and fourth in defensive EPA per play. | Monday, Dec. 18, 8:15 p.m. ET

Week 16 at Denver Broncos (5-5): Through the first six weeks of the season, the Broncos looked like one of the worst teams in football. And then, the flip switched: they have won four straight after their 1-5 start — including a win over the Chiefs — and currently have the longest such streak in football. Denver is definitely on an upswing the Patriots never managed to catch after their own slow start into the year. | Sunday, Dec. 24, 8:15 p.m. ET

Week 17 at Buffalo Bills (6-5): Their 29-25 upset over the Bills was one of the Patriots’ best wins of the Mac Jones era, but they have been unable to carry any momentum into their next three games. Buffalo, meanwhile, went on to lose two of its next three, and to fire its offensive coordinator in what looked like a desperation move. The team did return to the win column in Week 11, but it remains to be seen if the Bills are able to reestablish themselves as one of the top teams in the AFC — or if they will continue to play wildly inconsistent football like they did in Week 7. | Sunday, Dec. 31, 1 p.m. ET

Week 18 vs. New York Jets (4-6): The Jets managed to win four games this season even with Zach Wilson at quarterback, which speaks for the overall quality of the team. However, if you do not have a capable passer under center your chances of victory in the NFL are slim on a week-to-week basis. Accordingly, New York still looks like a coin flip every game it enters. That is obviously true for the Patriots as well, meaning that everything seems to be on the table come the regular season finale. | TBD

Even though a majority of the Patriots’ upcoming opponents have been on a rollercoaster for much of the season, the overall quality of New England’s schedule Weeks 12 through 18 is still high. On a bad day — and the team has had quite a few of those this year — they can lose against anybody in the NFL, even previously lackluster teams such as the Giants or Jets.

The Patriots finishing the season with a top-5 draft pick therefore appears to be very much on the table. Of course, given that the team has already largely defied its pre-season expectations, there is no telling what it will do over the next seven weeks.