Resurgent Patriots rejoin Ravens in crowded AFC playoff race


Winners of four of their last five games, the New England Patriots seem to have finally found their stride in the post-Tom Brady era. That was punctuated by a 45-0 blowout victory over the Los Angeles Chargers on Sunday. 

Two Cam Newton rushing touchdowns, zero points allowed, a balanced rushing attack, and a blocked field goal attempt returned for a touchdown showed New England's domination in all three phases of the game. 

That's something that coach Bill Belichick has preached during his 20 years in New England, but has been severely lacking in Patriots performances this season. Belichick has led the franchise to 11 consecutive postseason appearances dating back to the 2008 season -- the longest such streak in NFL history. 

That season was also the one season Brady was dealt the first and only season-ending injury of his career. Now, with Brady on the Buccaneers, Belichick is in danger of missing the postseason for just the third time during his Patriots tenure. 

Even without an injured Brady for that 2008 season, Belichick's Patriots still managed to win 11 games as they became just the second team in NFL history to miss out on postseason action with that many wins. With coronavirus challenges in 2020, however, this come back from what seemed to be a lost cause back is especially impressive. New England was 2-5 after losing its Week 7 game against the Bills. 

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With Newton taking better care of the ball these days and the other two sides of the ball clicking - the blocked field goal was one of two special-teams touchdowns against Los Angeles - New England could be a factor during the final four weeks of the regular season. 


Half a game above them in the AFC playoff picture is Baltimore, which is trending in the opposite direction. With three straight losses and a coronavirus outbreak causing chaos within the organization, the Ravens need to start winning. That begins on Tuesday night against Dallas. 

The Cowboys mark the first of the NFL's easiest remaining schedule for Baltimore. Three of the last four Ravens opponents have won a combined seven of 44 games. With Jacksonville competing with the Jets for the No. 1 pick in next year's draft and the Bengals without their star rookie quarterback, Joe Burrow, Baltimore has opportunities. But it could also need key wins over the 9-3 Browns or NFC East-leading Giants (5-7), who upset the Seahawks on Sunday. 

For New England, after seeing the NFC West-leading Rams (8-4) next week again in Los Angeles, it's three consecutive divisional games to close out the season. That's not an easy end-of-season schedule, but with the momentum after a landslide win against the Chargers, don't count the Patriots out of it just yet.