The Patriots are 8-3 and – thanks to the Steelers’ gag job in Denver – are the second seed in the AFC right now.
With the head-to-head win over Kansas City in their back pocket, all they have to do to get home field in the AFC is take care of their business and wait for the Chiefs to stub their toe.
And you have to expect toe-stubbage is coming for KC with games against the Ravens, Chargers and at Seattle in the next four weeks.
But the “take care of their business” part for New England isn’t assured as it’s been in years past. The 2018 season has not been business as usual on the way to 8-3.
Nothing’s coming easily for a team that’s made it look easy so long we all forgot how hard it can be.
Since their blowouts of the Dolphins and Colts in Weeks 4 and 5, the Patriots were within a foot of being tied at the buzzer by Chicago, didn’t get separation from the Bills and Derek Anderson until the fourth quarter, broke loose from a 17-17 tie with the Packers with two fourth-quarter touchdowns, got manhandled by Tennessee and – on Sunday – eventually took care of the Jets with two late touchdowns.
But neither the inevitability of the win nor the invincibility of the Patriots were much in evidence.
The fourth-quarter drive that salted it away was a case study in how narrow the margin is this season, even against a team like the Jets.
Forget the “they always play ‘em tough down there” tripe. The Jets are playing under a soon-to-be-canned head coach with an old quarterback who was just OK when he was young. They got undressed by the Bills, 41-10 and had gone 8-for-52 on third downs in their previous four games.
When the Patriots took over at their 20, leading 20-13 it was early in the fourth quarter and the Jets had just been forced to punt after their would-be, game-tying drive was stalled by a penalty.
What followed from there was, depending how you look at it, a triumph of resourcefulness or a little reminder of just how slim their margins are this year. Maybe it was both.
The first play of the drive was a 33-yard burst by Sony Michel following a path opened by Shaq Mason, David Andrews and James Develin. Michel – who missed a chunk of time earlier this season with a knee injury and a chunk of time Sunday after being bent back Medievally at the end of a run.
That he returned from that injury was remarkable. It’s also remarkable that a rookie running back is the Jenga piece that could make the whole offensive tower fall down if he’s not around.
On the next snap, Brady tried to throw it 60 yards downfield to would-be wide receiver Cordarelle Patterson. His pass went 54 yards and would have been picked if it hadn’t been so underthrown. Patterson had one catch for 7 yards in his previous four games. In his best game as a wideout this season, he had three catches for 54 yards, including a 55-yard touchdown. That’s right, he lost yards on his other two catches. And on his only catch Sunday, he lost a yard.
Second down brought a hurried flip in the flat to James White that fell incomplete.
Then, facing third-and-10 Brady dropped, stepped up to buy time and 25 yards to the right sideline where Josh Gordon picked the ball neatly off the turf to extend the drive. Good throw, great catch by the team’s lone outside threat, a guy who exceeds expectations every additional week he’s on the field.
After Jets safety Jamal Adams hysterically knocked a teammate offsides to make it first-and-5, Patterson got nothing on a handoff before Michel picked up the first down with terrific interior running.
PATRIOTS 27, JETS 13
Play-action to Michel on the next play sucked up the Jets linebackers and opened an alley for Julian Edelman – who had his 32-year-old body bounced all over MetLife Stadium on Sunday – to put the Patriots at the Jets 2.
From there, Patterson – who’s obviously watched too many NFL Films highlights of Billy Sims – got labeled trying to vault into the end zone. Michel got stacked up six inches from the goal line. Now it was third down. Since the Patriots aren’t very effective this year throwing in tight spaces, they went to Michel again. This time, he barely got it to the front edge of the goal line for the score.
It was a two-touchdown lead at 27-13 and that’s where it would stay.
But, man, it was harder than you’re accustomed to seeing.
Consider this, after Halloween last year, the Patriots went 7-1 winning by 25, 25, 18, 20, 3 (on the road at Pittsburgh), 20 and 20.
Entering December, the Patriots are what the Patriots are. The likelihood that they are going to suddenly going to start overwhelming teams or having them crumble at the mere sight of Brady and Bill Belichick wandering around in the pregame is slim.
They’re vulnerable in a way they haven’t been in a long time, but they’re dangerous too because they do still have the smarts and resourcefulness to find a way, whether it’s against the Chiefs in a shootout or the Jets in a rock fight.
This week, as the Patriots get ready for a three-game run against the Vikings then at Miami and Pittsburgh, you may hear people say that we’re going to learn a lot about this Patriots team.
But really, you should know it by now. They’re nothing like they’ve been in past years in terms of being able to impose their will.
And it’s their will that will take them as far as they get.
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