By Matt Dolloff, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Is 19-0 possible for the Patriots? Well, they’re probably the only NFL team where the possibility is greater than zero. But it’s vastly more likely that another team hands them an L at some point in the 2017 regular season.
That’s not a hot take. That’s a simple observation of the fact that 19-0 has never been done and is really, really, really hard to pull off in the NFL. It’s not a knock on the Patriots that they will probably lose a game in the regular season – perhaps even two or three! – it’s just that Tom Brady, Bill Belichick and the Patriots are so damn good, it’s become much less interesting to talk about how badly they’re going to beat everyone than it is to talk about who could possibly beat them.
Of course, the Patriots will do plenty of winning in 2017. It’s likely that they will win most, if not all of their AFC East matchups. Their Monday Night game on the road against the Dolphins is easily the most (maybe the only) “losable” game in that regard. But the Patriots’ real competition comes from their opponents outside the division, and it’s quite possible that those teams are where the losses will come, however close the games may be.
Below is a look at the five most losable games on the Patriots’ 2017 schedule. This isn’t a prediction that they will lose all five – in fact, it would be stunning if they lose five or more games for the first time since 2009. But it’s not outlandish to suggest they will lose 1-4 of these contests. It certainly won’t affect their status as the clear Super Bowl favorite.
There’s little to no statistical analysis involved here. It’s more of a general look at the games’ places in the schedule (the Patriots typically play their best football in the second half of the season), locations (they almost never lose in Foxboro and historically struggle in other cities), and of course the opponents (there are other good teams in the NFL and some of them have reason to be extra-prepared).
So, here goes …
5. Week 7 vs. Falcons
The Falcons have done a phenomenal job of reinforcing the widely-held belief in New England that they are not only obsessed with their Super Bowl loss to the Patriots, but that they will never recover from it. Matt Ryan, Dan Quinn, and even Thomas Dimitroff continue to actually answer questions about the game, instead of stiff-arming them with “We’re on to 2017”. Matt Ryan finally did it last month.
The Falcons could start off the first six weeks at something like 2-3 (they have a bye in Week 5), but if they can’t at least make a valiant effort toward getting their Super Bowl revenge, then they’re in bigger trouble than they want to admit. This is the 2016 Seahawks game of the 2017 season. It’s reasonable to expect that the Falcons, a talented professional football team with no shortage of motivation, will show up in Foxboro focused and well-prepared and give the Patriots a full 60-minute effort.
Also, perhaps they will run the ball and kick field goals at the end of the fourth quarter this time.
4. Week 5 at Buccaneers
This game will be somewhat uncharted territory for the Patriots. Other than the infamous “butt fumble” game at the Jets on Thanksgiving in 2012, the Pats have never gone on the road on a short week. Their Thursday night games have almost entirely been played in Foxboro.
Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston took a slight step forward in 2016, leading his team to a 9-7 record and upping his passer rating to 86.1 as a 22-year-old. He could very well struggle against Bill Belichick’s defense as most young, inexperienced QBs do, but the Patriots’ lack of familiarity with him and freakish receiver Mike Evans could also prove problematic.
This would certainly be an upset loss for the Patriots, a case of the worse team playing better on Sunday (or in this case, Thursday). But the Bucs’ rising star at QB, combined with the great uncertainty of a road game on a short week, makes this contest the top candidate for the Patriots’ Trap Game™, that surprise loss that comes out of nowhere (see Eagles, Philadelphia in 2015).
3. Week 15 at Steelers
With this big-time AFC showdown coming late in the season, it’s likely that the Patriots will be very tough to beat at this stage. But if any AFC team can, it’s the Steelers – and it appears that they may have finally woken up on defense.
It only took the Steelers 16 years or so to figure out that you can’t just “do what you do” against Brady, which for Mike Tomlin has mostly been zone. Brady picked the Steelers apart in the 2016 AFC Championship Game, and it seems that it was the last straw.
The Steelers have vowed to finally play the right kind of defense against Brady and put themselves in a better position to solve the NFL’s “Patriots problem”. It remains to be seen if those promises will pay off, but a home game in a spot where they may be in a must-win situation for seeding purposes (and in bigger need of a W than the Patriots) gives them as good a chance as ever of finally “solving” Brady.
2. Week 11 at Raiders (in Mexico City)
The Patriots’ history in Thursday night games is strong, and the same can be said for non-Super Bowl neutral site games. They’ve played two games in London since 2009 and won both by a combined score of 80-14. They crushed the Buccaneers at Wembley Stadium in 2009 and absolutely waxed the Rams 45-7 in 2012.
The Raiders, however, are no pushover. They have one of the league’s best quarterbacks in Derek Carr and an elite pass-rusher in Khalil Mack. Belichick will need to center his defensive gameplan around confusing or slowing down Carr while Brady and the offensive line will need to know where Mack is at all times.
If this game were being played in Foxboro, the scale would be tilted way more toward the Patriots. Mexico City helps level the playing field. The Raiders have some of the best top-end talent in the NFL and one of the best chances to knock off the Patriots in the regular season.
1. Week 10 at Broncos
In the quest to find the “most losable game”, road tilts in Denver are the perennial favorite. The Broncos still boast one of the league’s toughest, deepest defenses and Brady remains just 3-4 in Denver in the regular season, plus 0-3 in the playoffs, despite winning last season.
Even still, the Patriots’ 16-3 win at Mile High Stadium in 2016 was more about their suffocating defense holding the Broncos to just three points, as Brady and the Patriots could only muster one touchdown and three field goals on offense. Brady fumbled twice without turning the ball over.
That doesn’t mean the Broncos will get the W back this time. The point is, Denver is simply a tough place to play for any road team and it’s almost always been a significant challenge for Brady and the Pats regardless of who’s lining up opposite them. If the Broncos can figure things out on offense, they can make this a real game and perhaps give the Patriots one of their only losses of the season.
At the end of the day, the Patriots probably will not lose more than 3-4 of these above games. But it’s more likely that by January, we will be talking about 12-4 (or even 14-2 or 15-1) rather than 16-0. Either way, they’ll likely end up the No. 1 seed and playing for their seventh straight chance to go to the Super Bowl.
Matt Dolloff is a writer/producer for CBSBostonSports.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, CBS, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @Dolloff985 and email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.