FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — With a record of three wins against four losses, the New England Patriots find themselves stuck smack dab in the middle tier of the NFL landscape.
New England isn’t bad enough to be mentioned in the same context as the teams that can start making definitive plans to pick inside the top 10 of next year’s draft. That dubious distinction is reserved for winless clubs like the Detroit Lions and one-win teams such as the New York Jets, Houston Texans and Jacksonville Jaguars.
We would include the one-win Miami Dolphins, whose lone win to date came at the Patriots’ expense, but their 2022 first-round pick belongs to the 2-5 Philadelphia Eagles.
Sizing up the list reserved for potential playoff contenders, the Pats of 2021 vintage are like curious kids standing on their tippy toes, hoping to catch a glimpse. In other words, they’re on the outside looking in at the race to be playing meaningful football after Week 17.
Just be thankful that New England isn’t trying to crack the code of the top-heavy NFC (one undefeated team in the Arizona Cardinals plus four teams with just one loss). At least the AFC is a bit more forgiving, with no one owning fewer than two losses.
The stone-cold reality is that if the NFL playoffs were to begin tomorrow, the Patriots would be watching them on television for the second straight year. Per the postseason picture laid out by NFL.com, New England sits in ninth place in the AFC. That’s two spots out of the final playoff berth that as of right now is occupied by the 4-3 Cleveland Browns.
Any hopes the Pats have of escaping the middle of the pack need to be addressed in conjunction with this week’s business trip to the West Coast.
Labeling Sunday’s game against the Los Angeles Chargers as a must-win may come across as a tad extreme, but with a new month on the horizon, New England must start stringing together some wins. Otherwise, the race to make the playoffs — an expanded wild-card field, mind you — will become more of a pipe dream than a probability.
The good news is that the Patriots are in position to build off a win after serving up a 50-burger in a 54-13 bludgeoning of the Jets this past Sunday.
For a team that at times has purposely gone out of its way to remind the public that they’re better than their actual record, the mission of achieving what would be a second straight win would represent new territory. The previous two times the Pats walked off the field as the victor, they followed up with a loss the next week.
“We’ve got to turn the page and do it again. That’s what it is in this league,” tight end Hunter Henry said during Wednesday’s in-person media availability.
The hunt for the season’s first two-game winning streak also coincides with the hunt for a victory against a quality opponent. Of New England’s three wins to date, two have come rather handily against the Jets while the other was a rock fight against a woeful Texans team.
Led by second-year quarterback Justin Herbert, the 4-2 Chargers sit a half-game behind the Las Vegas Raiders for first place in the AFC West. If the Patriots wish to be taken more seriously, a win at SoFi Stadium would represent a major step in that direction.
Looking at Sunday’s sojourn to California from another perspective, a victory by the Pats would be gladly stuffed in their back pockets only to emerge down the line should there somehow be the need for tiebreaking relief against the Chargers. The last thing that New England wants is to fall two games behind Los Angeles with the head-to-head matchup belonging in the other team’s corner.
Sizing up the long-term picture — a concept that’s frowned upon within the day-by-day, moment-by-moment mentality that exists within the New England locker room — the Patriots are in the market for a win that would enable them to reach the .500 mark and keep them in the thick of the playoff race as the scene shifts to November. Otherwise, the beat goes on in the quest to break free from the middle tier.