The Patriots exited their bye week in possession of an AFC playoff spot. Keeping it won’t be easy.
New England’s remaining schedule is arguably the hardest in the NFL. Its final eight games include five against opponents that are currently in the playoff picture and another against a team that played in the Super Bowl last season. Three of those games are condensed into a 12-day span, beginning this Sunday against the New York Jets at Gillette Stadium.
Ahead of that matchup — the biggest between the two longtime AFC East rivals in years — here’s how we would rank the Patriots’ remaining opponents, from easiest to most difficult:
7. Las Vegas Raiders (Week 15 away)
The 2-7 Raiders have been a complete and total mess this season. They’ve blown three 17-point leads. They just lost to Jeff Saturday and the Colts. Could Josh McDaniels’ familiarity with the Patriots give them more of an edge than they’ve had in other games? Perhaps. But this is a deeply flawed team. New England could see a full-strength Vegas offense with Pro Bowlers Hunter Renfrow and Darren Waller eligible to return from injured reserve in time for this game, but they won’t help a defense that ranks at or near the bottom of the NFL in nearly every category, including 32nd in Football Outsiders’ DVOA and 30th in expected points added per play.
6. Arizona Cardinals (Week 14 away)
First question: Will Kliff Kingsbury even be the Cardinals’ head coach by the time this game comes around? Arizona beat the John Wolford-led Los Angeles Rams last week to snap a two-game skid, but if it loses to the San Francisco 49ers and Los Angeles Chargers and falls to 4-8 on the season, the perennially underachieving Kingsbury could be shown the door during Arizona’s Week 13 bye. Kyler Murray’s rushing ability could be a challenge for a Patriots defense that’s struggled against mobile quarterbacks this season, but they had a good plan against Murray the last time these teams met, holding him well below his season averages in rushing and passing yards in a 2020 victory.
5. New York Jets (Week 11 home)
This matchup could hinge squarely on Zach Wilson’s performance. If the Patriots can spook him into scrambling for his life and chucking up baffling interceptions, as they did when these teams met three weeks ago, they should win. But if Wilson plays the way he did in an upset win over Buffalo (72% completion rate, 154 yards, one touchdown, no INTs), the odds of the Jets snapping their 13-game losing streak against the Patriots increase exponentially. With a defense as good as theirs, they only need responsible, unspectacular play from their often-erratic QB to be competitive.
4. Cincinnati Bengals (Week 16 home)
The defending AFC champs currently sit outside the conference playoff picture at 5-4, but they’ve been in almost every game (three losses by three points or fewer) and should have superstar wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase back from injury by the time they visit Gillette Stadium on Christmas Eve. Offensive line play remains an issue for Cincinnati, however. The Bengals are 26th in sack rate against and have allowed five or more sacks in three of their four losses. That could be problematic against Matthew Judon and a Patriots defense that ranks second in sacks and sack rate.
3. Minnesota Vikings (Week 12 away)
The 8-1 Vikings have won seven in a row. All seven of those were one-score games, including Sunday’s insane overtime thriller in Buffalo. Is that type of success sustainable? We’ll find out in the coming weeks. They’re a middling team by most statistical metrics, ranking 17th in offensive DVOA and 19th in defensive DVOA. But Minnesota currently sits just a tiebreaker out of first place in the NFC under first-year head coach (and 2008 Patriots draft pick) Kevin O’Connell. The kickoff time for this Thanksgiving night matchup does favor the Patriots, however. Kirk Cousins has been notoriously unsuccessful in primetime, going just 10-18 in night games in his NFL career.
2. Miami Dolphins (Week 17 home)
The Dolphins have been borderline unstoppable with Tua Tagovailoa in the lineup this season — not a sentence we ever expected to type. Miami is a perfect 7-0 in games Tagovailoa has started and finished, averaging 29.1 points per game in those and topping 30 four times. Tagovailoa’s stats over the last three weeks: 76.5% completion rate, 9.9 yards per attempt, nine touchdowns, zero interceptions, 137.7 passer rating. The much-maligned QB is playing like a legitimate MVP candidate, and the Dolphins’ offense is humming under the direction of head coach Mike McDaniel. The Patriots also are 0-4 against Miami since Tagovailoa debuted, including a 20-7 loss in this year’s season opener.
1. Buffalo Bills (Weeks 13 home, Week 18 away)
Have the Bills looked vulnerable of late? Yes. They dropped back-to-back games, losing to the Jets and Vikings to slide to sixth in the AFC standings. Has Josh Allen struggled? Also yes. He threw multiple interceptions in three straight weeks, with four of those coming in the red zone or end zone. Buffalo no longer is the runaway AFC East favorite it appeared to be at the start of the season. But until the Patriots prove they can slow down Allen, Stefon Diggs and the rest of that vaunted offense, the Bills will remain their No. 1 threat. In the teams’ two most recent meetings, including last season’s wild-card round whomping, Buffalo scored 80 points and did not punt once. And the Patriots have to face them twice as they make their final postseason push.