NFL playoff picture: Patriots are squatting on Wild Card spot; can they hang onto it?

Curran: Can Patriots hang onto a playoff spot? The path is daunting originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

Never in recorded history has an entire division qualified EN MASSE for the postseason.

Know what? If the season ended today, not only would we all be VERY surprised, but the whole of the AFC East would be in the playoffs.

Yup. You can look it up. The Dolphins (7-3) wriggled their way up to the No. 2 seed by bopping the Browns. The Bills (6-3) dropped to No. 6 with their face-melting loss to the Vikings. The Jets (6-3) stayed put at No. 5 while on their bye and the Patriots (5-4) photo-bombed the playoff picture by sliding into No. 7 with the Chargers' loss on SNF.

NFL Playoff Picture: Where Patriots stand in ultra-competitive AFC East

Since the league expanded to four divisions per conference in 2002, it was impossible for a four-team division to get all their teams into the postseason because only six slots were available. With four division winners and two Wild Cards in a six-team field, there was no way a fourth-place team would bump a division winner regardless of record.

But with one more slot available, now it can happen. And the Patriots are squatting on that spot.

How strong is their hold? Well, without getting into a recitation of their basic strengths (defense, kicker) and weaknesses (offense and … uhhhh … offense) let’s just look at the strength of victory/strength of schedule for them so far and then in the season’s second half.

The Patriots’ strength of victory is .424. The five teams they’ve beaten (Steelers, Lions, Browns, Colts, Jets) are a combined 19-26-1. The Jets account for six of those wins. None of the others are over .500.

The Patriots' strength of schedule (combined records of all opponents) is .465 (39-45-1). The teams they’ve lost to (Dolphins, Ravens, Packers, Bears) are a combined 20-19. They’ve played just three teams who are currently playoff-bound (Dolphins, Ravens, Jets) and are 1-2 against them.

Buckle up...

Combined win percentage of Patriots' first nine opponents

46.5

Combined win percentage of Patriots' last eight opponents

59.5

Variation

Double

That .465 strength of schedule is 12th in the AFC, ahead of just the Raiders, Broncos, Chargers and Colts. The Titans are the only team in either conference currently qualified for the playoffs that's played an easier schedule. (Their six wins have come over teams that have 18 wins combined).

The upshot? Just as you suspected. The Patriots' wins over teams quarterbacked by Jared Goff, Jacoby Brissett, Sam Ehlinger, Mitch Trubisky and Zach Wilson aren’t that impressive, save for that Jets win when Wilson effectively ruined New York’s chance at knocking the Patriots off.

Their losses? Two came against objectively superior teams (Ravens and Dolphins). One came against a similarly inconsistent one (the 4-6-1 Packers).

One came against a team they SEEM better than but probably aren’t (Bears). You may want to resist that notion. But when you consider how badly Chicago demolished the Patriots (33-14 with mercy knees at the end) and the arc of the Bears offense with an improving Justin Fields while the Patriots under Mac Jones are flopping like a haddock on the deck of a boat, it’s hard to do.

So what are the Patriots' prospects for holding onto the seventh seed and the rest of the AFC East hording playoff spots? LET’S TAKE A DAMN LOOK!

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Six of the Patriots' final eight games are against teams above .500.

The combined record of the Patriots' final eight opponents (counting Buffalo twice) is 44-30 (.594 winning percentage). Five of the Patriots' final eight games are against current playoff qualifiers -- Jets, Vikings, Bills, Dolphins and Bills.

That’s not easy. Neither is the fact that half of the Patriots' final eight are at night and three of those are on the road (at Vikings on Thanksgiving, at Cardinals, at Raiders).

The Patriots have a short week before going to Minnesota on Thanksgiving. They don’t catch the normal post-Thursday break of a 10-day rest after that game since they’re at it again the following Thursday night hosting the Bills.

They get a nice 11-day layoff before their West Coast swing to Arizona and catch a break with the Cardinals game on a Monday night, so they do get a mini-bye. But the Raiders game, a SNF affair at 8:20 p.m. EST, can muck up the following week, since the Patriots won’t be on their plane home from Vegas until 1 a.m. EST and won’t land until about 6 a.m. So that kinda ruins Monday the 19th. Then it’s the Bengals on Christmas Eve.

Bonus for the Patriots to not have to fly home next to Santa’s sleigh.

HOWEVER, with the mish-mash of teams in the playoff race in both conferences, nobody’s going to be mailing it in late, especially the Bills, who are the Patriots’ Week 18 opponent on January 8.

So the Patriots are playing better teams at more random times. And the two "bad" teams they’ll see -- Cardinals and Raiders -- have a pocketful of Kryptonite for the Patriots. Kyler Murray can scoot. The Patriots so far have not held up against dual-threat quarterbacks. And former Patriots coaches traditionally do very well meeting their former team. That’s Josh McDaniels and the Raiders.

There’s plenty of justification for saying, "Yeah, but …" to the Patriots' 5-4 record so far. It’s hard to be entirely sure the defense isn’t a first-half mirage as it was two of the past three years. The offense is lost in the wilderness.

But if the Patriots get to 10 wins (finish 5-3) they’ll almost certainly be in the postseason. Against good teams. Against the odds. In defiance of their recent history of November/December swan dives.

The next eight games matter not just for 2022 but -- if Robert Kraft was to be believed in March when he noted the Patriots' lack of playoff wins recently -- down the road as well.

Backsliding happens. Backsliding out of the playoffs with a fleet of high-priced offensive players making minimal contributions, a first-round quarterback regressing to barely pedestrian play and an uncoordinated offense that doesn’t know whether to poop or go blind under a first-time play-caller?

I guarantee that will lead to some blunt conversations and difficult decisions.