Less than a week after taking down the AFC’s best team and seemingly heading for a first-round bye in the playoffs, the Patriots quite literally dropped the ball against the 49ers on Sunday.
Tom Brady and the Patriots’ offense gave the ball away four times, twice in each half, and watched the 49ers take a huge lead that proved just a tad too daunting in the end. The turnovers were a major factor in the Patriots’ letdown, which ultimately ended in a 41-34 loss in front of the home crowd at Gillette Stadium.
The loss was disappointing on its own, but the impact it had on the Patriots’ playoff standing made for an even bigger story. Now, at 10-4 on the season, the Patriots trail both the Houston Texans (12-2), who they beat handily last week, and the Denver Broncos (11-3), who they also beat earlier this season, for the coveted first-round bye.
The Patriots said they weren’t thinking about their postseason road after the loss. Brady led the charge in that regard, keeping the focus on what was in the Patriots’ control, including next week’s opponent, and dismissing any thoughts of playoff seeding.
“You know, we haven’t thought about that yet. We’ve just been trying to string wins together and so forth. What’s in our control is winning football games,” Brady said. “We’ve got two games left, and certainly this game is very important to the outcome of our season, next week in Jacksonville.”
With just two games left, the likelihood of the Broncos or Texans slipping up badly enough for the Patriots to make up ground is very slim, if not none. The Patriots, who travel to Jacksonville next week before hosting the Dolphins in the season finale, have a fairly easy road to the playoffs. But Denver and Houston aren’t in too much danger of losing the top two seeds.
The Broncos would need to drop one game for the Patriots to make up any ground, and they’ll host the Cleveland Browns and Kansas City Chiefs, both mediocre opponents, to finish off their season. Meanwhile, the Texans, who would have to falter twice, are faced with a pair of playoff contenders, welcoming the Minnesota Vikings to town before heading to Indianapolis for a divisional rematch with the Colts.
The likelihood of the Broncos or Texans losing out is very slim, and the Patriots are well aware of their likely fate come playoff time — even if they won’t talk about it openly. Then again, the past two Super Bowl champions (Packers and Giants) played on wild card weekend, which could be a good omen for a Patriots team with championship-level talent and fortitude.
The playoff seeding situation isn’t what the Patriots were hoping for, but it isn’t the end of the world, either.