As Carson Wentz limped his way off the field in Los Angeles on Sunday, so went the chances of a juggernaut in the NFC playoff field: gimpy, vulnerable and looking for answers. All while the New England Patriots, awaiting a Monday night football matchup against the Miami Dolphins, got a little close to their sixth ring of the Bill Belichick and Tom Brady era.
It’s been that kind of season for the Patriots.
While weathering their own injury woes with aplomb, they’ve seen one potential title contender after another get rocked. Quarterbacks have fallen. Secondaries have weakened. Offenses have been gutted. Meanwhile, the Patriots have steadily adjusted, tweaked and tuned up a defense that has quietly shown gains after a horrific first month of the season. Now they’re headed toward a Sunday road game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, a game that will likely decide the No. 1 playoff seed in the conference and provide a championship-caliber litmus test.
That’s the defining game down the stretch of the NFL season because we don’t know for sure how good these Patriots are. Since thumping the Atlanta Falcons 23-7 in October, New England has been dining on a withering menu of AFC teams. Even the back-to-back high-altitude road games against the Denver Broncos and Oakland Raiders (in Mexico City) have taken on new meaning. Looking back, those wins were both geographically impressive for the Patriots – but they also came at the expense of franchises that now look remarkably mediocre, if not downright dysfunctional.
The Patriots are as impressive as their 10-3 record indicates (they suffered a 27-20 setback on Monday night to division rival Miami). But their win total has been fluffed a bit. In fact, the Patriots are 2-2 against teams that would be in the playoffs if the postseason started right now – with wins over the New Orleans Saints and Atlanta Falcons and losses to the Kansas City Chiefs and Carolina Panthers. (It’s key to point out that those two losses came in the first month of the season.)
A lot has happened since then. Most notably, a landslide of significant injuries that have weakened teams that might have given the Patriots a host of problems in the AFC playoffs or Super Bowl.
The Eagles looked like a Super Bowl threat before losing Wentz – not to mention All-Pro left tackle Jason Peters. The Chiefs? Their secondary has fallen apart without safety Eric Berry. The Seattle Seahawks’ defense has been walloped with the subtractions of safety Kam Chancellor, cornerback Richard Sherman and defensive end Cliff Avril. And the Green Bay Packers fell behind the playoff pace without quarterback Aaron Rodgers (who may still return), running back Ty Montgomery and right tackle Bryan Bulaga. Also don’t leave out the Steelers, who lost dynamic Pro Bowl linebacker Ryan Shazier to a frightening back injury.
All of those injuries have taken a toll on Super Bowl aspirations while leaving teams looking to fill significant voids in the starting roster. It has also elevated the teams that have stayed relatively healthy – including the Falcons and Panthers, who have either dodged the wave of injured reserve issues or admirably managed injured players to the point of their expected return late in the season. Either of those teams is capable of being close to full health and finding a postseason groove all the way into the Super Bowl.
Even the Patriots haven’t been completely untouched by losses, having to make their way without wideout Julian Edelman, All-Pro linebacker Dont’a Hightower and special teams centerpiece Nate Ebner for the rest of the season. Not to mention nursing recent injuries to offensive tackle Marcus Cannon and linebacker Kyle Van Noy.
But this has also been where the Patriots have historically excelled – finding workable pieces or coaching tweaks to make up for holes in the depth chart. Or simply leaning on Brady and the offense to carry the team through a few games where other parts of the machine are imperfect. As much as Edelman has been a tough loss, New England has always found a way to rotate the passing game through platooning receivers or a rotation of pass-catching running backs. And while losing Hightower might have been devastating last season (and frankly, it’s still bad this season), the back end of New England’s defense should be talented enough to allow some aggressive scheming up front.
That’s where all of these injuries hit home. Without Edelman, Hightower and Ebner – and the typical week-to-week like Cannon and Van Noy – the Patriots had some vulnerability against other perceived elites. And they should still have their hands full against a team like the Steelers in the postseason. But the Chiefs? They’re beatable against a prolific passing team. And the championship herd is thinning considerably in the NFC, making the opposite end of a Super Bowl matchup look a little less troubling. The Seahawks have some pressing concerns defensively that can’t be solved easily. The Eagles just lost a playmaking quarterback who was in the conversation for league MVP. And even if Rodgers returns, the Green Bay Packers may not make the postseason.
That basically leaves a Carolina Panthers team that will likely go as far as quarterback Cam Newton takes them, and a Falcons team that has yet to figure New England out for a full 60 minutes. Even having lost to the Panthers earlier this season, New England has to like those potential matchups on the NFL’s biggest stage.
Of course, there’s still three weeks left in the regular season. From the standpoint of roster health, that might as well be a lifetime. But make no mistake: barring something unforeseen, New England has made gains that may be hard to reverse. Even on a Sunday the Patriots sat idle, they walked away winning.