Thursday, January 20, 2022

2021 NFL playoff picture: Where Patriots stand in the AFC after Week 15, what team can improve on

For a minute there, it looked like the New England Patriots were in the midst of another lost season. After retooling the roster over the offseason following a 7-9 campaign in 2020, Bill Belichick’s team limped out to a 2-4 start and was winless at home following Week 6. It was at that point where the team looked lost. A chunk of the new faces struggled to mesh and the defense was breaking at points in the game where they could barely afford to bend. 

However, following that overtime loss to Dallas, the Patriots would flip a switch and turn the season on its head. They went on a seven-game wining streak that breathed new life into the 2021 campaign and now has them in the thick of the AFC playoff picture at 9-5.  The defense has blossomed into one of the top unit in the NFL and the offense has started to click both in the passing game and on the ground. As I’ve noted previously during this streak, this is one of Bill Belichick’s masterpieces

But where does New England go from here with three weeks remaining in the regular season? Below, we’re going to take a look at the current playoff picture and where the Patriots stand in it all. We’ll also dissect the club’s remaining schedule, highlights some areas of improvement, and predict where they’ll ultimately finish. 

Current playoff position 

The Patriots had their winning streak snapped on Saturday in Indianapolis as the Colts handed them a 27-17 loss. That defeat highlighted some issues that we’ve highlighted for quite some time, especially the team’s inability to stop the run. 

That loss did knock New England out as the No. 1 seed in the conference as the Chiefs have since leaped over them as Bill Belichick’s team falls to the No. 2 seed. Kansas City does have a one-game led over the Patriots in the standings, but the Patriots do currently have the tiebreaker thanks to their strong record within the conference. If K.C. drops a game down the stretch and the Patriots are able to draw even with them, that tiebreaker could come into play. 

Meanwhile, they hold the No. 2 seed in the AFC thanks to the head-to-head tiebreaker they own over the Titans, who also are at 9-5 on the year. 

Remaining schedule 

Here’s a look at each of the Patriots’ three remaining opponents. 

  • Week 16: Buffalo

  • Week 17: Jacksonville

  • Week 18: @ Miami

Week 16 is the highly anticipated rematch with the Bills, which could very well be a division-clinching opportunity for the Patriots. A win would not only give New England a two-game lead over the Bills, but it’d also give them the season sweep of their division rival, which puts them firmly in the driver’s seat to ultimately be crowned AFC East champions. 

They wrap up the regular season in Foxborough with what should be a layup win against the Jaguars before traveling down to Miami to put a bow on the year. That game for the Dolphins — who have won six straight — could be a tough one for New England as playing in Miami late in the season has historically been unkind to the Patriots. 

Areas of improvement 

  • Stopping the run. While New England’s defense has been superb on balance, the one weak area has been stopping the run. Teams have been able to have their way with the Patriots front seven on the ground if they truly commit to it. That was on full display in Week 15 against the Colts where Jonathan Taylor had his way with the unit, rushing for 170 yards, which included a back-breaking 67-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter. 
  • Red zone execution. This has been one area where the Patriots have been a bit inconsistent, which could be a fatal flaw when you get into potential shootouts in the playoffs. New England’s touchdown percentage in the red zone is just 54, which ranks 24th in the NFL. Over the last three weeks, they are blow that mark at just a 40% conversion rate. 

Prediction 

While nothing is clinched at this point, it would take an utter collapse for the Patriots to miss the playoffs. The real question is whether or not they’ll be able to claw back as the No. 1 seed in the conference and earn that first-round bye. It’s certainly possible, but that loss in Indianapolis certainly didn’t help. They’ll now need to hope that Kansas City drops a game or two down the stretch, which isn’t entirely impossible as they play the Steelers, at Bengals and at Browns to finish up the season. 

I do think New England be able to beat their other three opponents in the Bills, Jaguars, and Dolphins, bringing them to a 12-5 record. That should be good enough to keep them in contention for the top seed, especially with such a strong record against the AFC. 

Meanwhile, Caesars Sportsbook has the Patriots at +1000 to win the Super Bowl (third-best odds in the NFL) and are +450 to win the AFC (second-best odds in the conference). They are -175 to win the AFC East. 

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