After a HUGE, let me say it again, HUGE win against the Lamar Jackson led Ravens on Sunday Night Football the Patriots look more like the team we saw in the beginning of the season, and maybe even better.

However, big wins unfortunately only count once in the W column and the Patriots still sit at 4-5 despite victories against the Dolphins, Raiders and now Ravens.

We know how good the Patriots can be, but in a stacked AFC playoff race is it too little too late?

The short answer – no, it is not. But, it is going to take a near-flawless finish to the season if they have any hope of contending for a playoff spot.

Here is how it can happen:

New England’s rest of season schedule outlook

While this Patriots team has many more deficiencies than previous seasons, they have clearly mapped out a formula to winning. If they can run the ball at will, control the clock by converting first downs, force teams to kick field goals instead of score touchdowns and win the turnover battle they simply don’t lose.

In their four wins this year they have totaled at least 160 rushing yards, converted at least 25 first first downs, have held everyone except the Jets (7 points in second half) below 21 points and have turned the ball over two total times while forcing eight.

As a result of this you can assume that the Patriots strengths are:

  • Running the ball
  • Winning time of possession
  • Red Zone Defense
  • Causing turnovers

I took these strengths and compared it to how the Patriots future opponents fare against them to give you an outlook on each game coming up:

(Statistics and rankings courtesy of Football Outsiders)

(DVOA = Defense-adjusted Value Over Average)

Week 11 @ (2-7) Houston Texans

  • 32nd rushing defense in DVOA
  • 11th pass offense in DVOA
  • 60% RZ-TD scoring percentage (15th in NFL)

It’s no secret that the Texans aren’t very good this year, but they can’t stop the run to save their lives and their strength on offense is the passing game, which the Patriots can stifle with a healthy secondary.

I would give the Patriots the advantage in this game.

Week 12 vs. (6-3) Arizona Cardinals

  • 13th rushing defense in DVOA
  • 13th pass offense in DVOA
  • 72% RZ-TD scoring percentage (5th in NFL)

This will likely be the Patriots toughest test in this stretch as the Cardinals have been red-hot as of late. The Cardinals boast the 13th best rush defense in DVOA, but that doesn’t necessarily tell the whole story. Teams are passing the ball 60% of the time against their defense and the Cardinals are allowing 4.5 yards per rush – which is not bad, but not great either. The key to this game will be stopping the Cardinals in the red zone. They’re converting almost 3/4 of their red zone trips into touchdowns although they have been trending down in their last three games. If the Patriots run the ball and control the clock, contain Kyler Murray and force field goals, they could easily walk out of there with a win.

Due to the matchup concerns, I would say this game is a toss-up.

Week 13 @ (2-7) LA Chargers

  • 24th rushing defense in DVOA
  • 5th pass offense in DVOA
  • 62% RZ-TD scoring percentage (19th in NFL)

The Chargers are a lot better than their record shows, but they simply can’t win close games. They have been right there with the NFL’s best teams all season long so you can’t count them out. However, their strength is their passing offense led by rookie QB Justin Herbert which plays right into the hands of the Patriots. If the Patriots can contain Herbert and force him to make mistakes, I think they will be able to run the ball and score in the red zone enough to win this game. Not to mention Belichick is 19-5 against rookie QB’s in his career.

I would give the Patriots the advantage on this one.

Week 14 @ (6-3) LA Rams

  • 12th rushing defense in DVOA
  • 17th pass offense in DVOA
  • 1st rush offense in DVOA
  • 63% RZ-TD scoring percentage (16th in NFL)

Now this game scares me as a Patriots fan. We saw how god awful the Patriots were at containing the rushing attack with the 49ers – the Rams offense was spawned from the same philosophy. Now, what gives me hope is that the Rams haven’t been fantastic in the red zone this year, so they can run the ball all over the defense as long as their drives end in field goals. The Patriots will need to keep it low scoring and force Goff to make mistakes like they did in Super Bowl 53.

I would give the Rams a slight advantage here solely because they are playing at home but not by much. Would be a HUGE win for the Patriots.

Week 15 @ (6-3) Miami Dolphins

  • 29th rushing defense in DVOA
  • 14th pass offense in DVOA
  • 64% RZ-TD scoring percentage (13th in NFL)

The Brian Flores led Dolphins squad has been sensational as of late, and their rookie first-round QB Tua Tagovailoa is 3-0 as the starter. However, Belichick always has something up his sleeve for rookie QBs. They are playing in Miami, which hasn’t always treated the Patriots too well but combining their porous rush defense with a rookie QB is a recipe for success in the book of Belichick.

I would give the Patriots a slight advantage in this game, but it will be hard-fought regardless. Oh, and the Patriots can’t afford to lose any division games for the rest of the season if they want to make the playoffs. Must win.

Week 16 vs. (7-3) Buffalo Bills

  • 23rd rushing defense in DVOA
  • 6th pass offense in DVOA
  • 62.5% RZ-TD scoring percentage (18th in NFL)

The Bills have been the best team in the AFC East to this point, and beating them will be a tall task whichever way you slice it. However, lest we not forget that the October Patriots were coming out of a rut and managed to take the Bills to their breaking point before ultimately fumbling the game away. They ran the ball with ease and were able to hold the high-powered Bills offense to a relatively low-scoring output in Buffalo. Playing them for the second time at home, you know Belichick is going to have a better game plan.

Again, must win situation in a division game but if the Patriots of late show up they can and MUST win this game. Slight edge to the Patriots because of the home field advantage.

Week 17 vs. (0-9) New York Jets

I’ll save you the time and keep this short and sweet; it’s the Jets. I know it took a last-second field goal to beat them the first time but the Jets will likely be competing for the first overall pick in the draft and the Patriots will be playing them at home. Should be a very winnable game for New England, but it’s also a trap game that they absolutely have to show up for.

Advantage Patriots.

Most likely scenarios for the rest of the season

Now, it would be naive of me to say that the up-and-down Patriots team will keep up this level of play and win out to finish the season 11-5, so I looked at all 10 AFC teams in the playoff hunt’s rest of season schedule to figure out what needs to happen for the Patriots to make the playoffs.

They currently sit in 10th place in the AFC, 2.5 games back in the AFC East and have been given a 9.9% chance to make the playoffs, per Football Outsiders playoff probability metric. Obviously, there are a million things that can happen to the other teams in the final stretch of the season but here is how I see it ultimately shaping out for everyone else.

Projected AFC Records

*Denotes division winner

  • Pittsburgh Steelers (15-1)*
  • Kansas City Chiefs (14-2)*
  • Tennessee Titans (12-4)*
  • Buffalo Bills (11-5)*
  • Baltimore Ravens (11-5)
  • Las Vegas Raiders (11-5)
  • Cleveland Browns (10-6)
  • Indianapolis Colts (10-6)
  • Miami Dolphins (9-7)

Based on these end-of season records that I calculated (clearly subject to change) I came up with the three most likely scenarios for the Patriots in their final seven games of 2020.

Before we dive in, I’ll make it clear right now that if the Patriots drop both AFC east matchups between the Bills and the Dolphins they will not make the playoffs, so in each scenario they win against both of those teams.

Scenario #1 – Patriots finish 9-7 (losses to Cardinals and Rams)

First off, the Bills would win the division at 11-5 so the Patriots would be vying for one of the three wild card spots. A 9-7 record would be tied for 9th best record in the AFC meaning they would miss the playoffs.

It would take an end of season collapse from two of the following teams; Browns, Ravens, Colts and Raiders to get them in – not very likely. All in all, the Patriots have to at the very least win one of those games and get to 10 wins if they want a chance.

Scenario #2 – Patriots finish 10-6 (loss to either Cardinals or Rams)

This is where it gets interesting. a 10-6 record would leave the Patriots tied for the last wild card spot with the Browns and the Colts. Here’s the breakdown of how the NFL handles tiebreakers.

Head to head sweep?

  • If these teams had all played each other the team who was 2-0 against the others would get the playoff bid. However, the Patriots won’t be playing either team in 2020, so it is not applicable.

Record against other AFC teams?

  • NE: 9-3 (losses to KC, DEN, BUF)
  • IND: 7-5 (losses to JAX, CLE, BAL, TEN, PIT)
  • CLE: 6-6 (losses to PIT x2, BAL x2, TEN, LV)

This scenario has New England going to the playoffs as the 7th seed due to a tiebreaker. Now, Cleveland and Indianapolis haven’t played all of these games yet but based on my final record projections I have them losing some AFC games at the end of the season and the Patriots winning all AFC games at the end of the season. They would make the playoffs here.

Scenario #3 – Patriots finish 11-5 (win out)

This is probably the most unlikely scenario, but it is entirely plausible if they come out and play like they did on Sunday night for the rest of the season. An 11-5 record would have them tied for the AFC East lead with the Bills. They would have the same record against each other and the rest of the AFC East, so the tiebreaker would go to the Bills on account of AFC record (*cough cough Broncos loss cough cough).

The Patriots wouldn’t win the AFC East but they would be in a three-way tie for the fifth seed at 11-5 with the Raiders and Ravens, both of whom they have beaten – giving them the fifth seed in the playoffs.

This should go without saying, but whatever happens in the big games against the Cardinals and the Rams won’t matter unless the Patriots beat the teams they’re supposed to beat. Any Broncos-esque bad losses against the Texans, Chargers or Jets and they can kiss the playoffs goodbye. If the Patriots we saw on Sunday night are the Patriots we get for the rest of the season, they can cause some serious damage should they make the playoffs.

The offensive line is dominating, Cam isn’t making mistakes, the secondary has been great and they’re getting Gilmore back. There is reason to be hopeful if you’re a Patriots fan, but they have a lot of ground to make up.

It will be fun to see what happens, but the Patriots are breathing again.

Let’s ride.