The New England Patriots reminded everyone Sunday that when the calendar turns to December, Bill Belichick's team starts to play its best football.
The Patriots beat up on a good Minnesota Vikings team for a 24-10 Week 13 win at Gillette Stadium, improving their record to 9-3 and keeping them in the No. 2 seed in the AFC playoff picture. New England's record in December with Belichick as head coach now stands at 59-11 over 19 seasons. What's even more remarkable is the Patriots are 34-4 at home in December since 2001.
This bodes well for the Patriots in their quest to earn a top-two seed and a first-round bye in the AFC playoffs. The Pats have secured a first-round bye in eight consecutive seasons, and there's a strong chance they will do it again in 2018.
Why? For starters, their schedule isn't too difficult.
Three of New England's four remaining games are easy matchups against the putrid AFC East. The Patriots travel to Miami on Sunday to take on the 6-6 Dolphins, whom they defeated 38-7 in Week 4. In Week 16 the Patriots play the 4-8 Buffalo Bills and in Week 17 they wrap up against the 3-9 New York Jets. Those last two games are at home. The only tough game remaining for Belichick's squad is a Week 15 showdown against the Steelers in Pittsburgh. But after watching the Steelers go offside three (!) times on the Los Angeles Chargers' game-winning field goal on Sunday night, that matchup might not be as tough as previously thought.
In addition to a favorable schedule, the Patriots defense also appears to be kicking into high gear. The Vikings have a quality quarterback in Kirk Cousins, a good running back in Dalvin Cook and one of the elite wide receiver duos in Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs. New England allowed just 10 points, though, and also forced two turnovers. Belichick's defense hasn't allowed a 300-yard passer in five games. It hasn't allowed a 100-yard rusher in nine games.
The Patriots' defense normally steps up in December. In fact, the defense has allowed fewer than 20 points per game during December in four of the last six seasons. Here's a breakdown of those seasons in December:
2017: 3-1, 18.25 points allowed per game
2016: 4-0, 9.75 points allowed per game
2015: 2-2, 20.75 points allowed per game
2014: 4-1, 15 points allowed per game
2013: 4-1, 21.6 points allowed per game
2012: 4-1, 17.4 points allowed per game
If the Patriots take care of business against the Bills, Dolphins and Jets, and then beat a Steelers team capable of shooting itself in the foot, they would finish 13-3. The Kansas City Chiefs are one game ahead of the Pats for the top seed and still have to play the Baltimore Ravens, Los Angeles Chargers, Seattle Seahawks (on the road) and Oakland Raiders. The Ravens, Chargers and Seahawks all are battling for a playoff spot and playing very well at the moment.
The Patriots also have the tiebreaker over the Chiefs as a result of their Week 6 head-to-head win in Foxboro.
There's still a lot of football to be played, but the Patriots and their fans should be confident about earning a first-round bye given the team's recent December success, particularly on defense, and a pretty soft schedule to close out the regular season.
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