With time dwindling on the regular season, there is still some jockeying for position left before deeming the final collection of playoff teams and actual seeding for both football conferences.
Looking at the Patriots, it’s easy to see where the danger lies in the AFC for the defending Super Bowl champions. They’ve lost to all the conference front-runners, so it’s more a matter of assessing which teams should scare them the most, and in what order.
As ESPN analyst Damien Woody pointed out in a recent conversation, one can reference the Patriots from last year to get the best clues, because it all comes down to which team is rounding into top form right now.
“All of this is about momentum,” said Woody. “I’ve seen so many times where a team gets hot at the right time, and boom, they ride it all the way. Look at the Patriots. They weren’t dominant last year, but they hit their stride at the right time, and rode it all the way toward winning the Super Bowl.”
Woody didn’t sound confident about the Patriots being able to take advantage of that formula again given how the offense has sputtered and not been able to get it in gear most of the way. He believes it will be a struggle.
“I think this is going to be the toughest postseason for the Patriots that we’ve seen in a while,” he said.
How tough? With Sunday’s Week 16 games still to play, here’s how we’d rank the teams currently in with the Patriots in mind.
1. Baltimore Ravens
John Harbaugh’s team put up the most points (30) against the Patriots defense this season. There was another score on a fumble return, but as far as what the defense allowed, Lamar Jackson & Co. enjoyed the most success. The Ravens moved almost at will on the ground, gaining 210 yards collectively on 41 carries. The Patriots couldn’t stop Jackson (16 rushes, 61 yards, 2 TDs) or Mark Ingram (15 carries, 115 yards). Adjustments were made, and that tamed Jackson for a bit, but when the Pats tried to get back in the game, the Ravens put the hammer down. Bill Belichick’s top-rated unit hasn’t completely solved its issues with running games, or mobile quarterbacks. This is the best combination out there, with Jackson leading the team in rushing (1103 yards). The long, sustained drives by the Ravens wasn’t a recipe for success the first time out.
As for Baltimore’s defense, the Ravens got off to a slow start, but have turned it around. They traded for cornerback Marcus Peters, and his addition has been significant. Since taking his spot in the secondary before the midway point in the season, the unit has been tough on quarterbacks, as the Ravens have only allowed a passer rating of 72.5, which is best in the league. Part of that success is due to the Ravens being able to blitz more with Peters in the secondary.
Of course, Tom Brady has had his issues with the blitz this season. His passer rating has been among the worst in the NFL when teams have used the blitz against him.
Bottom line, the Ravens were dominant on both sides of the ball in their Week 9 win. Perhaps Belichick didn’t totally tip his hand with how he would defend Jackson in a postseason game. What might the Hoodie have in store for Jackson if the teams were to meet again down the road? That would be the biggest storyline.
2. Kansas City Chiefs
Patrick Mahomes didn’t exactly light it up in Foxboro Week 14. But the gunslinger has shown signs of life since. Mahomes is getting his groove back, and if he starts slinging it around like last year, the Patriots will have no chance of keeping up. Their offense just hasn’t proven it can go toe-to-toe with an offense that can post 30 to 40 points. It has a hard enough time scoring 20.
Now, if Mahomes maintains his current level, that’s probably still good enough to beat the Patriots and everyone else. He might not be posting the same type of passer ratings (141.1) as earlier in the year when he was completely healthy, but he’s still pretty darn good. He’s gradually improved since returning from a dislocated knee injury. Last week, he threw for 340 yards and a pair of touchdowns in the snow against the Broncos.
When it comes to defense, teams that can run the football and control the clock have been able to beat them (Colts, Texans, Packers, Titans).
The Patriots have only shown flashes of a running game, and they’re certainly not the dominant force they were late in the year during their championship run last season.
During their Week 14 meeting, they were held under 100 yards on the ground, with James White (6 carries, 33 yards) their top rusher.
The 23-16 loss at Gillette pretty much summed up all the issues with the Pats offense. Can’t run, can’t block, can’t get the ball in from the red zone. Yes, they were victimized by some poor officiating, but the chances were there to score, and Brady couldn’t get the job done.
The Chiefs, meanwhile, finally seem to have adjusted to Steve Spagnuola’s defensive system. The unit still has some flaws, but are much improved from earlier in the season. They also snagged Terrell Suggs off waivers from Arizona to help the pass rush, which after 14 games, had 39 sacks, two fewer than the Patriots. Spagnuola told reporters in Baltimore the goal is for Suggs to be more than just a situational pass rusher.
“I think we’ll use him wherever we can,” he said. “Initially here, it’s going to be grasping hold of the terminology more than anything — I mean, we’re not that far off from the things he’s been doing — but it’s not going to be, ‘Hey, you’re only going in on third down.’ Where he can help us, he’ll help us.”
3. Houston Texans
After Bill O’Brien earned his first victory over his mentor Belichick in six tries, his team laid an egg the following week. The Texans had a huge letdown after beating the Patriots Week 13. They got smoked at home by the Broncos. It was embarrassing to say the least.
But all was forgiven last week when they turned it around against the Titans, one of the hottest teams in the league, and a team that was nipping at their heels for the division title.
Needless to say, the Texans tend to run hot and cold, but when they’re on, they have an explosive offense. Deshaun Watson and Co. thrive on big plays, already producing more than 30 plays that have gained 30 yards or more this season. Only the Chiefs have hit for more.
Watson didn’t necessarily pick apart the Patriots secondary (18 of 25 for 234 yards) during the meeting in Houston, but was effective when he had to be, throwing three touchdown passes. The biggest dagger came in the third quarter, with a 35-yard touchdown pass to Kenny Stills.
On the plus side, along with the Bills and Steelers, the Patriots are up among the best defenses in the NFL in terms of limiting big plays. They did a good job there, and shut down the run, but still couldn’t contain Watson.
As for the Texans defense, defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel has had to adjust without top defensive ends J.J. Watt (injury) and Jadeveon Clowney (trade). There’s an outside chance Watt is able to return for the playoffs. Prior to Saturday’s game, Crennel’s crew was 26th in the league (28 sacks) in taking the quarterback down.
Brady made plays against them, he just didn’t make enough. Like Watson, he also threw three touchdown passes but came up short in the 28-22 loss. Not the best match-up for the Patriots, but not the worst, either.
4. Buffalo Bills
They haven’t gotten much respect. Mostly, they get dismissed from the playoff conversion. But the Bills are in, and their defense has the ability to make them a spoiler.
They’re talented on all three levels of the defense. It’s a defense that’s not afraid of Brady. It hasn’t been since Sean McDermott arrived in 2017. His defense in Carolina also had success against No. 12.
The wildcard is Josh Allen. Even though the second year quarterback has improved, he still tries to give games away. He’s still prone to make mistakes. Heading into yesterday’s game with the Patriots, he had committed 14 turnovers (9 picks, 5 fumbles) in 14 games. Horrendous, especially this time of year.
Allen tends to make a lot of mistakes on the run outside of the pocket. The Patriots like to keep him inside the pocket, forcing him to try and process what he’s seeing from the defense, and make a play. If Allen can stay turnover free, and rely on the run game, they’re a tough out.
5. Pittsburgh Steelers
The Men of Steel currently hold the second wild card spot. They may ultimately lose it to the Titans, but we’ll give them the benefit of the doubt. They have a very good defense. That’s their strength, like many of the above teams. The problem? They’re lacking at the most important position. Sorry, Duck.
Ben Roethlisberger was lost for the season with elbow surgery. Backup Mason Rudolph was ineffective. So the hopes of the Steelers ride on third string quarterback, Devlin “Duck” Hodges.
He’s better than Rudolph, but that’s not saying much. The Steelers could go with the run game, but James Connor has been banged up. Juju Smith-Schuster has also been hurt at receiver, so offensively, this team is a mess. Plus, the Patriots usually have their way with them in the playoffs. No need to say more.