FOXBOROUGH — With their playoff possibilities now virtually nonexistent, the 2023 Patriots still have a powerful incentive when it comes to the next month: the relatively unfamiliar role of spoiler.
Starting with Thursday’s game at Pittsburgh, New England’s next four opponents — the Steelers, Chiefs, Broncos, and Bills — are all in the playoff mix, to varying degrees. Which means that over the next month, the Patriots can make life uncomfortable for four old-school AFC foes that are either jockeying for home-field advantage (Kansas City), or simply looking to secure their place in the postseason (Pittsburgh, Denver, and Buffalo).
After practice Tuesday, the majority of the locker room said winning remains the priority, regardless of the opponent and situation. But a chance to post a victory and do some possible damage to a conference foe that might have playoff aspirations is a bonus.
“The last 20 years, the Patriots have been going to the playoffs, and teams have been trying to spoil their Christmas,” defensive lineman Davon Godchaux said. “We just look at it like we want to play great football. But eventually, we can also spoil their Christmas, if we can get some wins.
“We just want to go out there and smash guys in the mouth, play disciplined, play with good fundamentals, and get a win. First and foremost, we don’t look at it like spoiling somebody’s Christmas. But at the end of the day, really, that’s what we’re trying to do. Because at the end of the day, we’re not going to the playoffs, and those teams have a shot at going to the playoffs.”
The Steelers (7-5) are one of three teams from the crowded AFC North who would make the postseason if it started today. But a loss to the Patriots could end up making things awfully dicey down the stretch, especially if the Browns and Bengals (both 6-6) keep winning.
Godchaux knows the challenge of knocking off the Steelers on the road will be sizable.
“[The Steelers are] going to be very physical,” Godchaux said. “Mike Tomlin, I have a ton of respect for him [as a coach]. Just seeing him on the sidelines, the way he carries his team, the way he operates. Everybody says Pittsburgh’s going to be terrible this year, and they’ve won seven games so far. I have a bunch of respect for him. It’s going to be great. He’s going to have his guys ready. No doubt in my mind.”
When it comes to the rest of the schedule, while Kansas City is virtually guaranteed a postseason spot, the Chiefs (8-4) are locked in the throes of a battle for home-field advantage with Miami and Baltimore (both 9-3). However, a loss to New England would do damage to their hopes of having the AFC playoffs run through Arrowhead Stadium.
Denver and Buffalo (both 6-6) desperately need every win possible if they want to keep pace with the rest of the AFC aspirants.
“We have a chance to knock those guys out of the playoffs and have them where we’re at right now,” cornerback J.C. Jackson said. “We just have to come together as a team and put it together and try and win these last five games we have left. We know we’re not going to the playoffs. But let’s go out there in these last five games and finish strong and make things tough for them.”
For a team such as the Patriots that has struggled to a 2-10 mark, players need to look for motivation wherever they can find it. Special teams captain Matthew Slater understands that’s one way to get fired up when the playoffs are out of sight.
“I always say it’s not hard to find motivation in this league, regardless of the situation you’re in,” Slater said. “I’d rather be in the situation to be spoiled than be the ones doing the spoiling. But that can motivate a lot of the guys in this locker room. We should use that and we should go out and try and play some inspired football.
“Certainly to have that opportunity to throw a wrench in things, that’s something we should embrace. Let’s go make something happen.”
Safety Jabrill Peppers welcomes the opportunity to play the role of Grinch and spoil the holiday season for these next four opponents.
“We’re going to embrace any challenge that any of these teams pose right now,” he said. “We know we have a tough stretch these last games, especially on the road. We’re embracing it, man. We love it. The adversity just builds a little character. We love it. We’re going to keep going out there doing what we do, locking in. And whatever happens, happens.
“At this point, that’s all we can do — be spoilers. Like I always say, you have to keep setting little goals for yourself, your team, the unit. That just gives you extra motivation. Extra things to play for. We’re excited about this stretch and we know we can definitely ruin some things coming down the line. Don’t think that’s not in the back of my mind.”