By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The last time it happened, George W. Bush was beginning his final year as a resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. A new television program called “Breaking Bad” showed up in Americans’ living rooms for the first time. Justin Bieber was 13 years old. Most of your friends didn’t have iPhones, and none of them were on Twitter.
That is what was going on in January 2008, the last time that an NFL postseason took place without the New England Patriots. It was a very long time ago.
But it’s a very real possibility that just seven short weeks from now, the NFL playoffs will begin without Bill Belichick’s team being involved. It would of course be the first time since 2008 and just the second time in the past 20 years.
If that is to happen, then back-to-back duds at home against the Broncos and 49ers, plus a fumble in Buffalo will surely be looked upon as the main culprits.
But at this point, there’s no benefit to dwelling on the past. What’s done is done. The Patriots still largely have it within their control to make the playoffs. But it’s not going to be easy.
The path to the playoffs can go one of two ways. The first would be winning the division. Considering the Bills have a 7-3 record, it won’t be particularly easy for 4-5 New England to catch up. Especially not with the 6-3 Miami Dolphins in between them. The Bills do still have the Steelers, Patriots and Dolphins on their schedule, so three losses is not out of the question for Buffalo. and the Dolphins end the year with home dates vs. the Chiefs and Patriots before road trips to Las Vegas and Buffalo. Some losses are surely in store, especially with a rookie quarterback.
But realistically, the only way the Patriots make the playoffs is to nab one of those three wild-card spots in the new, expanded postseason format. Even then, it’s a steep climb.
Currently, there are six teams in the mix for those three spots. The sixth-ranked team among them? That would be the Patriots. All five of the other teams are 6-3.
Making up that kind of ground on three teams in order to snag a seventh seed is certainly not ideal. But it’s also not impossible.
Consider that …
–The Raiders have the Chiefs, Colts, and Dolphins remaining on their schedule, plus a Thursday night game against the better-than-their-record-suggests Chargers.
–Miami, as mentioned, has a rookie quarterback, which is always dicey come December. Their next three games — at Denver, at the Jets, home vs. Cincinnati — should be easy. The stretch for the final four will be a massive challenge.
–The Ravens will face the angry Titans this week before traveling to Pittsburgh for a Thanksgiving night matchup. They could be 6-5 before anybody else kicks off in Week 12. Another Thursday nighter vs. Dallas is followed by a Monday night trip to Cleveland. The final three games — home vs. the Jags and Giants, and a Week 17 road trip to Cincinnati — are easy. But the next four weeks are anything but.
–The Browns are … the Browns. They’re always liable to drop a few games in a row, no matter how well things are going. They have some easy matchups — the Eagles, Jaguars, Giants and Jets are all on the docket — but getting the Titans and Ravens back-to-back in Weeks 13 and 14 could alter their picture dramatically.
Obviously some of those games include some head-to-head matchups. That makes exact prognostications a bit complicated and, frankly, unnecessary at this point in time. What’s clear is that the Patriots need three of those teams to lose three games apiece.
The most important part of any of this is simple: The Patriots have seven games remaining. They’ll almost assuredly need to go 6-1 to finish at 10-6 and have any realistic chance of making the playoffs.
That’s … not going to be easy.
Three of those games are against NFL cellar dwellers: Week 11 in Houston, Week 13 at the Chargers, and Week 17 vs. the Jets. Those should be wins.
That leaves Week 12 vs. Arizona, Week 14 at the Rams, Week 15 in Miami, and a Week 16 Monday night matchup vs. the Bills on their plate. The Bills, as mentioned, are 7-3. The other three teams are 6-3. All are currently within the playoff structure.
Prior to Sunday night, even discussing those games as potential victories for the Patriots would have seemed outlandish. But a convincing win over the Ravens provided at least a glimmer of hope that that a postseason berth is possible, even if it’s something of a long shot.
For the Patriots, that’s going to mean it’s “must-win” season every week, from now until January. The room for error has been almost completely used up, and Belichick’s team is going to have to channel whatever it was that drove them to beat Baltimore each and every week.