By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — In what was your standard, run-of-the-mill Wednesday afternoon NFL game in an empty stadium, the COVID-19-ravaged Baltimore Ravens came up short in Pittsburgh. Though a late 70-yard TD connection from Trace McSorley to Marquise Brown made things interesting, the Steelers prevailed, 19-14.
The game was notable for several reasons. It was the first Wednesday game since 2012, and just the second in more than 70 years.
More close to home, the game was important because it added another notch in the L column for Baltimore, drawing them farther from the playoff picture through 12 weeks. In turn, the Baltimore loss improved the Patriots’ shot at making the playoffs — even if that chance remains a long shot.
The Ravens are now 6-5, just one game better than the 5-6 Patriots. As we know from their head-to-head meeting in a monsoon last month, the Patriots own the tiebreaker with Baltimore, should it come to that.
In terms of teams ahead of them in the wild-card race, the Patriots also own the tiebreaker vs. the Raiders, and it’s within their control to own the tiebreaker vs. the Dolphins, if the Patriots can win in Miami in Week 15.
Here’s how the playoff picture looks as Week 13 begins:
1. Pittsburgh, 11-0 (AFC North leader)
2. Kansas City, 10-1 (AFC West leader)
3. Tennessee Titans, 8-3 (AFC South leader)
4. Buffalo Bills, 8-3 (AFC East leader
5. Cleveland Browns, 8-3 (Wild Card 1)
6. Miami Dolphins, 7-4 (Wild Card 2)
7. Indianapolis Colts, 7-4 (Wild Card 3)
8. Las Vegas Raiders, 6-5
9. Baltimore Ravens, 6-5
10. New England Patriots, 5-6
Obviously, the Patriots are in the least enviable position in that snapshot. And the games kicked away against Denver and Houston surely sting a bit more when looking at that overall picture.
Nevertheless, the Patriots are still alive. And if you want to start mapping out imaginary scenarios for the Patriots to make the playoffs, the possibilities exist.
For instance: The Ravens have to gather themselves and prepare to play the Dallas Cowboys on Tuesday. They’ll then be playing on the road in Cleveland on a Monday. Given how disrupted their entire process has been for weeks now, the road out of trouble is not easy.
The Raiders have a tough schedule to close the year. Once they get past the miserable Jets this week, they’ll host the Colts, Chargers and Dolphins, before traveling to Denver in Week 17.
If both the Raiders and Ravens struggle over their final stretch, the Patriots would just need one of either Miami or Indianapolis to slip. The Colts have two games in three weeks against the suddenly capable Texans, so sweeping that series will not be easy. A Week 16 trip to Pittsburgh against a team that could still be fighting for perfection likewise serves as quite the challenge. Throw in a trip to Vegas, and a 9-7 finish for Indy is somewhat possible, even if it’s unlikely.
Miami also ends the season with a challenging four-week stretch: vs. Kansas City, vs. New England, at Las Vegas, at Buffalo. It’s impossible to say what the stakes might be for that Week 17 game. The Bills could have the division wrapped up and thus won’t be incentivized to play starters and win. It could also have much higher stakes for both teams. Regardless, a path to two or even three losses is a possibility for Miami, and the Patriots will have the opportunity to deliver at least one of those — while also grabbing control of the tiebreaker.
Overall, it’s still an extremely long shot. The New York Times’ fancy machinery gives the Patriots a 13 percent chance of making the postseason. That’s low, to be sure, but it’s up from 8 percent five weeks ago. The Ravens have dipped from 93 percent to 55 percent in that same span, while the Colts have dropped from a 70 percent chance to a 58 percent chance.
Using Five Thirty Eight’s prediction tool, the Patriots could go from 13 percent to 39 percent if they can win both games in L.A. If the Patriots can tack on a win in Miami, the number jumps to 64 percent.
But now, we get to the most important part of the equation: The Patriots still have to win their games. Doing that has been a bit of an issue this year.
The aforementioned flops against Denver and Houston stand out, as do the late fumble in Buffalo and the goal-line stuff in Seattle. A dramatic, last-second win over the Cardinals last weekend may help boost morale and confidence within the Patriots’ locker room, but they’ll still need to string together some sort of hot streak in order to make any of this chatter worthwhile.
That effort will begin with back-to-back Los Angeles games — first against the Chargers on Sunday, then against the Rams on Thursday. They’ll travel to Miami after the mini-bye, before hosting the Bills and Jets to end the season. A 5-0 record in those games might be enough to vault them into the playoffs. A 4-1 record and a 9-7 final record will certainly make things a bit more dicey.
Yet in any event, the Patriots are 3-1 in their last four weeks. And for as long as the Patriots can continue to win games, they’ll continue to stay alive in the playoff picture. If things break a certain way in the next two weeks, their progress could be significant.