By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The Patriots came just one Doug Marrone short of getting a huge boost on Sunday afternoon, help that would have been delivered in the form of a Pittsburgh Steelers loss. Alas, some tremendously conservative play calling on offense and some breakdowns on defense led to the Jaguars blowing a 16-0 second-half lead against Pittsburgh.
As a result, the Patriots (7-3) on their bye week remained outside of the top two spots in the AFC playoff picture, trailing Pittsburgh (7-2-1) and Kansas City (9-1). That spot would be an unfamiliar one for Bill Belichick’s team, as the Patriots have enjoyed a first-round playoff bye every single year since 2010. And considering that the Patriots have lost the only two road playoff games they’ve had to play over the last decade, the current standings may be inspiring some consternation in the New England region regarding the outlook of the local football team.
While that may be a natural reaction, it may be premature — especially when you consider the schedule that lies ahead for the three teams involved in that fight for the top two spots.
In their final six games of the season, the collective win percentage of the Patriots’ remaining opponents is just .433.
The Steelers’ remaining opponents have a collective win percentage of .567, while the Chiefs’ remaining opponents have a collective win percentage of .500.
The Patriots will face two teams — Minnesota and Pittsburgh — with winning records, visit one team (Miami) that’s currently .500, and play three games against the Jets (3-7) and Bills (3-7). That soft ending to the year has been well-earned; the Patriots’ .525 Strength Of Schedule is second-highest among NFL playoff teams, and their .579 Strength Of Victory is tops in all of football.
The Steelers, meanwhile, will have to face three teams with winning records — the 7-3 Chargers, the 7-3 Patriots, and the 9-1 Saints, who may be the best team in the NFL.
The Los Angeles Rams, aka the other best team in the NFL, will be welcoming the Chiefs to their home on Monday night. After taking on the 9-1 Rams, the Chiefs will still have to face the 7-3 Chargers as well as the .500 Ravens and the .500 Seahawks, in Seattle.
As is well known, the Patriots own the tiebreaker with Kansas City, on the strength of a head-to-head victory from Week 6. It remains within the Patriots’ control to earn the tie-breaking edge with Pittsburgh, if the Patriots can manage to win on the road in Pittsburgh for a second straight December. The Patriots can remove any doubt if they can manage to win all six of their remaining games, which would automatically put them ahead of Pittsburgh in the standings and may end up being enough to catch the Chiefs.
Of course, it must be stated that strength of schedule going forward might not be of particular significance to the Patriots, as they’ve actually performed worse against bad teams than they have against good teams this season. Nevertheless, the fact of the matter is that though the Patriots currently sit outside of the top two spots in the AFC, they remain in tremendous position to leapfrog one — if not both — of the teams ahead of them before the season’s end.