Can Patriots Win AFC East? Plotting Potential Path To Division Title


Nov 9, 2021

Playoffs? We’re talking about playoffs?

That’s right.

The New England Patriots’ current three-game win streak has revived their 2021 postseason aspirations, putting them in position to compete for not just a playoff spot, but a possible AFC East title, as well.

With the Patriots muscling past the Carolina Panthers on Sunday and the Buffalo Bills stunningly falling to the Jacksonville Jaguars as 15 1/2-point favorites, the 5-4 Patriots now sit just a half-game back of the 5-3, reigning division champion Bills in the AFC East standings.

It’s still early. We’re only at the halfway point of this newly extended regular season. And with how tight the AFC currently is — nine of its 16 teams have exactly five wins — even a brief slump could crush New England’s hopes of returning to the postseason after a one-year hiatus.

But the Patriots, who currently occupy the AFC’s third and final wild-card spot, seem to found their winning formula. They’re playing great defense. They’re forcing turnovers. They’ve gashing teams on the ground. They’re making plays on special teams. Mac Jones is playing as well as one could expect a rookie quarterback to play.

The Bills? They’ve shown some cracks. Viewed as preseason Super Bowl contenders in the AFC and prohibitive favorites in the AFC East, they’ve dropped two of their last three games and needed a late-game surge to win the other. One of their five victories came against an underperforming Kansas City Chiefs squad. The other four were against Miami (twice), Washington and Houston — teams with a combined record of 5-21.

Buffalo, which boasts a talented roster and one of the NFL’s premier field generals in Josh Allen, still should be viewed as the favorite here. But the Patriots now look like a very real threat in the division they dominated for two decades.

What would New England need to do to upstage Allen and company? Let’s take a look at the road ahead for both teams.

Buffalo’s is slightly softer from a strength of schedule perspective (.487 to the Pats’ .500) and includes two games against the New York Jets. The Patriots already faced the Jets twice (winning both) but do have late-season matchups with the Jaguars and a bad Miami Dolphins team still to come.

Patriots vs. Browns
Bills at Jets

This week presents an ideal get-right opportunity for Buffalo. The Jets have been feisty at times this season with wins over the Tennessee Titans and Cincinnati Bengals, but they’ve allowed 130 points over their last three games and were blown out in two of those. New England faces a much tougher matchup against the streaky Browns, who routed the Bengals 41-16 on Sunday.

Patriots at Falcons (Thursday night)
Bills vs. Colts

The Patriots should be able to take care of business against the rebuilding Falcons, though Atlanta has been more competitive than expected this season. The Colts have gone 4-2 since their 0-3 start, with the two losses coming in one-score games against arguably the AFC’s two best teams (Baltimore and Tennessee).

Patriots vs. Titans
Bills at Saints (Thanksgiving)

The Titans were presumed dead after losing star running back Derrick Henry for the season, but they just destroyed the previously 7-1 Los Angeles Rams on the road on “Sunday Night Football.” They’re 7-2 themselves with just one gimme win (Jacksonville). Add in Mike Vrabel’s track record of success against his former club — Tennessee beat New England in 2018 and again in the 2019 playoffs — and this looks like one of the Patriots’ toughest remaining contests. The Saints have scored some quality victories this season — most recently over Tom Brady’s Buccaneers in Week 8 — but currently are starting Trevor Siemian at quarterback.

Patriots at Bills (Monday night)

The long-awaited first meeting between the two division rivals comes in primetime, amid what’s sure to be a raucous atmosphere in Orchard Park, N.Y. Buffalo will have three extra days to prep for this game after playing on Thanksgiving the previous week. This is the Patriots’ final game before their mid-December bye, so injuries and fatigue could be a factor.

Patriots bye
Bills at Buccaneers

The Patriots are one of four teams with the latest possible bye week this season. The Bills have a road date with Brady, who is 32-3 against them in his career (with one of those losses coming in a game he exited at halftime).

Patriots at Colts
Bills vs. Panthers

We already covered the Colts, who have scored 30-plus points in each of their last five games and haven’t dipped below 25 since Week 3. They’ll be a challenge for a Patriots defense that’s shown dominant potential of late. The Panthers aren’t going anywhere until they figure out their quarterback situation. It’ll be a minor surprise if Sam Darnold still has that job by this point.

Patriots vs. Bills

The Patriots can’t be swept by the Bills, as they were last season, and expect to reclaim the AFC East crown, so they need at least a split here. Buffalo rolled in its Week 16 visit to Gillette Stadium a year ago, winning 38-9.

Patriots vs. Jaguars
Bills vs. Falcons

The Jags’ 9-6 win over the Bills was this season’s most baffling result to date. With a rookie quarterback in Trevor Lawrence and a first-year NFL head coach in Urban Meyer, Jacksonville is exactly the type of team the Patriots typically dismantle.

Patriots at Dolphins
Bills vs. Jets

It’s an old cliché, but records really don’t matter when the Patriots visit Miami. They’ve dropped games to all varieties of Dolphins teams, losing down there in six of the last eight seasons. Even with Brian Flores’ club currently sitting at 2-7, anyone penciling this in as an easy Patriots win hasn’t been paying attention. The Bills should be able to close with a home victory over the Jets.

Thumbnail photo via David Butler II/USA TODAY Sports Images
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