By Matthew Geagan, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — We’re experiencing some rare air in New England.
We’re not talking about the unseasonably warm temperatures, because those are kinda sweet. No, we’re talking about the likelihood of the Patriots actually being required to play a game when the NFL kicks off its postseason in a couple of weeks. After dropping back-to-back games in December for the first time since 2002, New England finds themselves as the No. 3 seed in the AFC, meaning if the playoffs started today, there would be no first-round bye for the aging group.
The last time the Patriots lost two games in December was in 2015, when they lost four of their last six games. It’s happened just twice in the Brady-Belichick era. Playing on wild card weekend is just as rare, as the Patriots have done that just twice under the Brady-Belichick regime, in 2006 and in 2009.
It’s a small sample size, but neither of those teams made it to the Super Bowl.
The 2006 Patriots finished as the No. 4 seed in the AFC, and pummeled the Jets 37-16 on Wild Card weekend in Foxboro. They absolutely stole one from the Chargers in San Diego the following weekend, taking full advantage of several mental mistakes by the overzealous Chargers. They looked primed to return to the Super Bowl where they would have trounced the Rex Grossman-led Chicago Bears, but they let a 21-6 halftime lead slip away to Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC Championship Game. Brady usually enjoyed success against the Colts, even on their home turf, but threw a pick as the Patriots tried to mount a last-second comeback. That afternoon, inside the RCA Dome, the Patriots looked human for the first time in years.
The only other time the Patriots helped the NFL kick off their postseason was in 2009, a season that many are drawing parallels to when discussing these 2018 New England Patriots. That’s not a good thing, either, as the Pats were crushed by the visiting Baltimore Ravens, 33-14, on wild card weekend nine years ago. Baltimore had a 7-0 lead before most fans were even in their seats at Gillette Stadium, as Ray Rice broke off an 83-yard touchdown run on the first play from scrimmage.
That’s not the team you want to be comparing this year’s version of the Patriots to. Years later in Belichick’s “A Football Life” documentary on NFL Network, we heard the coach telling Brady on the sidelines during an embarrassing Monday night loss in New Orleans that he couldn’t get that 2009 team to play the way he wanted them to. That they lacked mental toughness. That’s maybe where the 2018-2009 comparisons are so worrisome. The Patriots haven’t shown their usual discipline and fight over the last few weeks, leaving many to wonder if this is another team that Belichick can’t reach.
It’s an extremely small sample size. It all paints a fairly worrisome picture in Foxboro, yet one that isn’t completely dry. The Patriots still have a shot — and a halfway decent one at that — to climb back to the No. 2 seed. They close the season with two favorable matchups at home against the Bills and Jets, while the Texans (currently in that 2-seed) have to travel to Philadelphia before closing the year in Houston against the lowly Jaguars. If the Patriots win out and the Texans lose one of their final two games, the Patriots jump back into the 2-seed thanks to their Week 1 win over Houston.
And things go much, much better for the Patriots whenever they have that first-round bye. In the 12 seasons the Patriots have been one of the top two seeds in the AFC, they’ve gone to the Super Bowl eight times. Only once in those 12 seasons did they fail to reach the AFC title game.
While things aren’t looking particularly great at the moment, it’s not all doom and gloom for the Patriots. Yes, they’re playing like a JV high school team, and they’ve missed out on new hats and T-shirts for two straight weeks. At the moment, all of that adds up to them playing on wild card weekend, which never really works out in the long run for Belichick’s squad.
But things have a funny way of falling into place for the Patriots at this time of the year, whether they earn it or not. If they have another slip up over the next two weeks, they’ll pay dearly for it. But if they do what they’re supposed to do and get a little help along the way, they’ll get a week off before they have to welcome someone to Gillette Stadium.
This year especially, that week off could make all the difference between another trip to the conference title game and an early end to the season.