The New England Patriots are heading west this Sunday. By the time they return, we’ll know whether they’re still legitimate threats in the AFC playoff race or simply playing out the string in a lost season.
At 6-6, the Patriots sit one game back of the third and final AFC wild-card spot with five weeks remaining. Their primary competitors for that last postseason berth are the 7-5 New York Jets, who hold it entering Week 14, and the 6-6 Los Angeles Chargers, who trail the Patriots by a tiebreaker. Barring a late nosedive by the 8-4 Cincinnati Bengals or 8-4 Miami Dolphins, it’s unlikely more than one of the Patriots, Jets and Chargers will be playoff-bound.
It’s difficult to forecast exactly how this final postseason push will shake out, but conservatively speaking, the Patriots would need to win at least three of their five remaining games to have a realistic shot at making the playoffs. That would get them to 9-8, which could be good enough to qualify depending on how strongly the Jets and Chargers close out their respective schedules.
A pair of nine-win teams made the playoffs last season, one in each conference. Winning four of five would put New England at 10-7 and all but guarantee it a spot.
Reaching either of those marks won’t be easy. The Patriots close out their season with games against the Bengals (home), Dolphins (home) and Buffalo Bills (away), all of whom would be in the playoffs if the season ended Thursday. Miami and Buffalo already have beaten New England this season — by 13 and 14 points, respectively — and Cincinnati is red-hot, with the defending conference champions winning each of their last four games and six of their last seven.
Even winning one of those three games will be a challenge for a Patriots team that has struggled against top-tier competition. The Patriots are 2-4 against teams currently holding playoff spots, and both victories came against Zach Wilson, who has since been benched by the Jets.
That makes New England’s upcoming West Coast swing vitally important.
The Patriots will visit the Cardinals on “Monday Night Football,” then spend next week in Arizona ahead of their Week 15 matchup with the Raiders in Las Vegas. Arizona and Vegas — playoff teams in 2021 — both have underachieved this season, boasting mediocre records of 4-8 and 5-7, respectively. Both are awful defensively. Fans and media members have called for both of their head coaches (Kliff Kingsbury and Josh McDaniels) to be fired in recent weeks.
On paper, these are games the Patriots — pegged as 1.5-point road favorites over the Cardinals as of Thursday morning — should win. And they’ll need to. Anything less than a sweep out west would decimate New England’s playoff chances.
Entering Week 14, FiveThirtyEight’s NFL playoff predictor gives the Patriots a 25% chance of reaching the postseason. Beating the Cardinals and Raiders would increase that number to 64% with three games remaining. Win one and lose the other, and it drops to between 19% and 20%. Lose both, and those odds plummet to 3% — essentially, season over.
And while the Patriots should have the upper hand on each of their next two opponents, there’s reason to believe both could be more of a threat than their subpar records indidate.
Both defenses should provide get-right opportunities for New England’s struggling offense. But Arizona could have its top three wide receivers (DeAndre Hopkins, Marquise Brown and Rondale Moore) active together for the first time all season, which would challenge a Patriots secondary that was routed by Justin Jefferson and Stefon Diggs in its last two outings, and Las Vegas has won three straight.
The Raiders also looked like the superior team when they practiced with the Patriots during the preseason, and no opposing coach knows how New England operates better than McDaniels, who coached there for 18 seasons. Vegas could get Pro Bowl pass-catchers Darren Waller and Hunter Renfrow back from injured reserve in time for that game, too, giving them two more premier receiving threats to complement All-Pro wideout Davante Adams.
If the Raiders defeat the shorthanded Los Angeles Rams this week and the Patriots can’t take care of business against the Cardinals, McDaniels would have a chance to leapfrog his former team in the standings in their Dec. 18 matchup, which was booted from its primetime slot and rescheduled to Sunday afternoon.
“Look, we’re 6-6,” Patriots center David Andrews said Tuesday. “We’ve got five games left. We can do whatever we want to do, and it can go one way or the other. And I think everyone’s commited to trying to turn it around and make it go the right way. That’s all we can do, and that’s what we’re going to try to do.”