A week ago, the Patriots were coming off their most disappointing loss in some time, as they coughed up a late lead to the New York Giants. The division rival Jets were surging after blowing out the Bills in Buffalo. A Sunday night meeting at MetLife Stadium would surely go a long way in determining the AFC East, and the Jets were riding high while the Pats were looking for answers.
However, here we are a week later, and things sure have changed. Tom Brady and the New England offense shook off a tough first half en route to throwing up 37 points against one of football's best defenses. Jets head coach Rex Ryan all but awarded the Patriots the division.
Then, early this week, we learned that two of the AFC's best teams — the Houston Texans and Pittsburgh Steelers — both have key injuries that could affect their potential postseason success. Houston quarterback Matt Schaub is out for the year with a foot injury, meaning the Texans must turn to Matt Leinart to take them to the promised land. In Pittsburgh, Ben Roethlisberger is expected to be back on the field after the team's bye week despite a broken right thumb, but when your job is to throw a football with your right hand, you'd usually like to have all parts of that hand in working order.
So, if you were a Patriots fan, you have to be feeling pretty good about your team's chances to land one of the conference's top spots and even finagle a way to Indianapolis to play in the Super Bowl, right?
Well, not so fast.
It's true that New England has an insanely easy schedule the rest of the way. In fact, it would come as a surprise to many if the Pats even lose a regular-season game the rest of the way. You could argue that their most difficult game between now and the rest of the season won't come until the divisional round of the playoffs.
Yet, do you really, truly feel that the Patriots are suddenly a team built to win in the playoffs? The most obvious place to start when handicapping the Pats' chances at postseason success is the defense. New England is putting its defensive faith in guys like Antwaun Molden, Sterling Moore and Jeff Tarpinian. Sure, the early prognosis for Devin McCourty is somewhat encouraging, but getting him back isn't necessarily a huge upgrade if he's playing the way he has this season.
Luckily for the Patriots, their creampuff schedule the rest of the way won't offer much offensive resistance. So Bill Belichick will have plenty of chances to work things out on the defensive side and get his team ready for the playoffs.
It will also be worth keeping an eye on Brady down the stretch. It's becoming increasingly clear that the quarterback is dealing with something, an elbow injury perhaps. His bread-and-butter — short, quick timing routes — have lacked the crispness that make him one of the game's most cerebral passers. It's also worth mentioning that teams are starting to jam Patriots receivers at the line of scrimmage, disrupting their timing as much as a bum elbow would.
However, Brady did show something in the second half on Sunday, so it's unclear what you're going to get from him the rest of the way. It should go without saying that he's the Patriots' biggest weapon when it comes to overcoming their own defensive ineptitude, and if he's playing at anything less than what Pats fans have come to expect in the past, they may be in deep trouble.
The biggest problem the Patriots may be facing, though, is that there are a few other roadblocks in the way on the climb to the top of the AFC, and they all reside in the AFC North.
The Steelers proved earlier this season that they can certainly handle the Patriots, as they humbled New England a few weeks ago in Pittsburgh. If both teams win out, the Steelers will win that No. 1 seed because of that game, and as a result, the Pats would be saddled with the difficult task of going back to Pittsburgh to win in the AFC Championship. Of course, Roethlisberger's thumb may play a role in this, too, but if he's healthy, that's a team you don't want to see.
Don't sleep on the Ravens, either. They've got offensive weapons that could give the Patriots problems, and their defense is still a force to be reckoned with. However, Baltimore's biggest problem could be trying to solve its own problems with consistency. If they can figure that out even in the slightest and get rolling at the end of the year, they're another team the Patriots don't want to see in the playoffs.
The Patriots certainly are set up for success for the rest of the season. Come playoff time, it's a pretty safe bet that they'll be among the conference's top two teams when the playoffs start. Unfortunately for them, that may be where some problems under the hood and some looming roadblocks may bring their quest for postseason success to a screeching halt.
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