After the Patriots beat the Bills in Week 13, Football Outsiders gave New England a 29.2% chance of winning the Super Bowl — the highest in the NFL.
Now, after back-to-back losses, the Patriots’ chances of winning the Super Bowl stand at 5.7%, good for eighth in the league. Other publications and experts similarly have dialed back New England’s once-surging Super Bowl buzz.
Is such a drop justified? Should expectations for the Patriots really be adjusted that much after its losses to the Indianapolis Colts and the Buffalo Bills?
Yes, but that doesn’t mean the Patriots are significantly worse than they were a few weeks ago when they were riding a seven-game win streak.
New England, like most teams in the AFC playoff picture, still is capable of beating any team, including the top contenders. The conference is wide open, with the top dog, the Kansas City Chiefs, not quite as formidable as they’ve been the last few seasons.
Make no mistake: The Patriots can hang with the Chiefs. They almost beat Kansas City last season with Brian Hoyer at quarterback, and the Chiefs since have gotten worse (relatively speaking, anyway) while New England has gotten better. Are the Patriots clearly better than the Colts, Bills or Tennessee Titans? Probably not, but the gap, if there is one, isn’t big. A playoff matchup with the Cincinnati Bengals really could go either way.
However, path matters in the playoffs, especially for teams led by a rookie quarterback, as the Patriots are with Mac Jones. And, right now, New England’s playoff road is a far more difficult one than it was in early December.
The Patriots held the top seed in the AFC after their Week 13 win over the Bills, putting them in the driver’s seat for a first-round bye. And, as we wrote at the time, a playoff bye would mean more to these Patriots than previous incarnations. One of the oldest rosters in the NFL could use extra rest, as could rookies who have played more football this season than they ever did in college. Most importantly, Jones would need every advantage he could get, and the road to the Super Bowl running through Foxboro absolutely would qualify.
Jones is good, poised and mature, but asking any rookie quarterback to win road playoff games is a big ask.
If the Patriots make the playoffs (they still haven’t clinched a spot but could this weekend), they likely would be on the road during wild card weekend. Should they advance, they likely would be away from Gillette Stadium for the divisional round, as well — though upsets do happen. By default, that makes it far less likely that New England makes it to Super Bowl LVI, thus necessitating an adjustment of expectations.
Yes, things could change over the final few weeks, but Patriots fans shouldn’t get their hopes up. To get the first-round bye, the Patriots would need to win their final two games and get some help: Chiefs losing their final two games, Titans and Colts both losing one of their remaining two games and Bills losing to either the Atlanta Falcons or New York Jets.
To win the AFC East and, in doing so, guarantee at least one home playoff game, the Patriots basically need to win out and hope the Bills slip up over the next two weeks. That scenario is more likely than the first one but still is a long shot.
Ultimately, you shouldn’t necessarily believe less in the Patriots than you did during their winning streak. They’re still a really good team when firing on all cylinders. But you should have increasing doubts over New England’s ability to go on a deep playoff run.