Breaking Down Patriots’ Playoff Odds After Two-Game Win Streak

Can the 4-5 Patriots crack this year's expanded playoff field?


November 18, 2020

With much-needed wins over the New York Jets and Baltimore Ravens, the New England Patriots kept their playoff chances alive.

But how realistic are those chances? Can this Patriots team really reach the postseason after its uninspiring 2-5 start?

The short answer: yes. But they’ll need to keep up their recent pace and receive some help along the way.

Let’s break it all down:

At 4-5, the Patriots currently sit 10th in the AFC standings, two games back of this five-way logjam:

5. Las Vegas Raiders (6-3)
6. Miami Dolphins (6-3)
7. Baltimore Ravens (6-3)
8. Cleveland Browns (6-3)
9. Tennessee Titans (6-3)
10. New England Patriots (4-5)

The Pats also trail both the Dolphins (by two games) and the 7-3 Buffalo Bills (by 2 1/2 games) in the AFC East. (Buffalo’s lead would be a bit more comfortable had it not just lost to the Arizona Cardinals on Kyler Murray’s last-second Hail Mary.)

New England owns head-to-head tiebreakers against the Raiders, Ravens and Dolphins, with a Week 15 trip to Miami still to come.

The NFL will debut a new playoff structure this postseason, with seven teams (including three wild cards) qualifying from each conference rather than the usual six. (An eighth playoff team per conference could be added if games are canceled due to COVID-19, but we’ll ignore that possibility for now.)

Since the league realigned to eight divisions in 2002, three eight-win teams, 10 nine-win teams, four 10-win teams and one 11-win team (the Matt Cassel-led 2008 Patriots) have finished seventh in the AFC:

2019: 8-8 Pittsburgh Steelers
2018: 9-6-1 Pittsburgh Steelers
2017: 9-7 Baltimore Ravens
2016: 9-7 Tennessee Titans
2015: 10-6 New York Jets
2014: 9-7 Houston Texans
2013: 8-8 Pittsburgh Steelers
2012: 8-8 Pittsburgh Steelers
2011: 9-7 Tennessee Titans
2010: 9-7 San Diego Chargers
2009: 9-7 Houston Texans
2008: 11-5 New England Patriots
2007: 10-6 Cleveland Browns
2006: 9-7 Denver Broncos
2005: 10-6 Kansas City Chiefs
2004: 9-7 Jacksonville Jaguars
2003: 10-6 Miami Dolphins
2002: 9-7 Denver Broncos

Since nine teams in the AFC already have six or more wins this season, the chances of an 8-8 team sneaking into the playoffs are low, even with the extra bid added. New England almost certainly would need to win at least nine games to get in, and even that might not be enough.

That means the Patriots, who are riding a two-game winning streak, can afford to lose no more than two of their final seven games. That would put them at 9-7. Six wins would put them on safer ground at 10-6.

Here’s the Patriots’ remaining schedule:

at Houston Texans (2-7)
vs. Arizona Cardinals (6-3)
at Los Angeles Chargers (2-7)
at Los Angeles Rams (6-3)
at Miami Dolphins (6-3)
vs. Buffalo Bills (7-3)
vs. New York Jets (0-9)

Those opponents have a combined winning percentage of .453 (29-35), and four would qualify for the playoffs if the season ended today (Cardinals, Rams, Dolphins, Bills).

For starters, the Patriots absolutely need to win the first and last games on that list. The Texans already have fired their coach and are going nowhere this season, and the Jets, who face a parade of potential playoff teams down the stretch, look like the clear favorite for the No. 1 overall pick.

Beyond that, they’d need to secure at least three victories during that difficult Arizona-to-Buffalo stretch. Four would be preferable.

Can they accomplish that? It’ll be tough, but not impossible.

The Cardinals (Murray), Chargers (Justin Herbert) and Dolphins (Tua Tagovailoa) all are led by young quarterbacks. As good as those three have been this season — and they’ve looked very, very good at times — inexperienced QBs tend to struggle against the Patriots, who are 24-2 in their last 26 games against first- and second-year signal-callers.

Herbert’s Chargers also are nowhere near the playoff hunt, though they have yet to lose by more than eight points this season. The other L.A. matchup — a Thursday night roadie — will be tricky, as it’ll force the Patriots to fly cross-country for the second time in four days, but Bill Belichick already has proven he can shut down Sean McVay’s explosive offense (see: that game in Atlanta a few years back).

As for Buffalo, New England might have won up there in Week 8 had Cam Newton not fumbled in the final minute. The Bills’ only wins in Foxboro since 2000 have come against Jimmy Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett.

The most important game on this remaining slate might be the Patriots’ Week 15 trek to South Florida, where they’ve won just twice in their last seven tries. Young QB concerns aside, Brian Flores’ Dolphins defense looks extremely formidable, and Flores already has beaten his old team once — last year’s Week 17 shocker at Gillette Stadium. New England did take the teams’ first meeting this season, though, winning 21-11 in their season opener.

The Patriots also would need some outside assistance. For them to jump from 10th to seventh, they’d likely need at least three of these fellow playoff hopefuls to drop three or four games down the stretch.

Of their primary wild-card competitors, the Browns have the easiest remaining schedule based on opponent winning percentage (.438), followed by the Raiders (.444), Ravens (.453), Dolphins (.469) and Titans (.508).

Well, they’re … not great.

ESPN’s Football Power Index gives the Patriots a 15.4 percent chance of making the playoffs (and a 4 percent chance of winning the AFC East). Football Outsiders has it at 9.9 percent. The Athletic’s model says 9.8 percent. New York Times: 15 percent. FiveThirtyEight is slightly more optimistic, pegging New England’s postseason chances at 20 percent.

Again, not great. But a whole lot better than they were two weeks ago.

Thumbnail photo via David Butler II/USA TODAY Sports Images
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