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DAN SHAUGHNESSY

This is a year the Patriots need a first-round bye more than ever

Ben Roethlisberger’s late touchdown stunned the Jaguars.
Ben Roethlisberger’s late touchdown stunned the Jaguars.(ryan young/Getty Images)

I’m beginning to worry that this might not be the Patriots’ year.

This is the bye weekend for New England. Ordinarily, that means everything that can possibly benefit the Patriots will happen. Even when they are not playing.

This would have meant Jacksonville beating the Steelers Sunday. This would have vaulted the 7-3 Patriots over the 6-2-1 Steelers in the AFC playoff seedings. It would have put the Pats on the only path they know: first-round bye, second-round home game, AFC Championship, Super Bowl.

And it looked like a certainty. The Steelers trailed the Jags, 16-0 with two minutes left in the third quarter . . . in Jacksonville. It was all set. The Pats were going to benefit while they were on their couches. Just like every other year.

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But then the Steelers rallied. They roared back on the shoulders of Ben Roethlisberger. Big Ben got picked a couple of times and had the picks called back. It looked like he lost the game for his team in the closing seconds. But there was a flag. A Roethlisberger interception was nullified. The Steelers had one last chance. And they converted. They stayed ahead of the Patriots in the AFC.

Related: Thoughts and observations on the Patriots through 10 games

Hmm. In the words of Bill Belichick . . . not what we were looking for.

The Patriots came into the bye week smarting from a 34-10 loss to the Tennessee Titans. With no game on the agenda, they took to rooting for the teams above them to lose. This meant the Steelers losing to the Jags. This meant the Chiefs losing to the Rams on “Monday Night Football.”

Stand around and wait for competitors to fall down. It’s a time-tested formula that’s served the Patriots for 18 years.

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The Patriots got their first break of the weekend when the Chiefs-Rams game was moved from Mexico City to Los Angeles because of field conditions at Azteca Stadium. The neutral site was good for the Chiefs. But now it’s a road game for Kansas City at Los Angeles Coliseum. Advantage: Pats.

All this good luck carried into Sunday’s action right up until Roethlisberger pulled off a vintage Tom Brady-like rally. It was stunning to watch it unfold. Something that would have helped the Patriots went totally awry.

Related: Breaking down the AFC standings and where the Patriots sit

Not good. Veteran observers know that this is not one of the stronger Patriot editions of the Bill Belichick/Tom Brady era. The 2018 Patriots are 2-3 on the road, and lacking in depth and talent. This is a year in which they are going to need the first-round bye and the cozy comfort of Gillette.

As always they are poised to win the AFC East but only because the Jets, Bills and Dolphins are simply worse than ever — all changing quarterbacks the way the rest of us change our socks.

The Patriots have six games left on their schedule and four of them are against the division stumblebums. The Jets, Bills and Fish are an aggregate 11-19. If they did not play one another, the three Tomatoes would have eight total wins.

Play a little parlor game while you watch the 9-1 Chiefs play the 9-1 Rams Monday night. Try to name the second-best quarterback in the AFC East over the last 18 years. Is it Chad Pennington? Ryan Tannehill? Mark Sanchez? Jimmy Garoppolo?

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Since Belichick and Brady got things rolling in 2001, the Dolphins and Bills each have had nine head coaches. Neither team has won a playoff game in this century. The Jets have been the best of the anemic three, but they might be in the worst shape of any team in the NFL. They’ve lost four in a row, three by double digits. They are tied for 25th in the league in points allowed. They are ready to fire coach Todd Bowles. And the Patriots are going to get to play them twice over the final six weeks. New England will also get the Bills, who are last in the league in scoring and have a quarterback named Matt Barkley.

Related: Here are eight areas in which the Patriots need to improve the most

The Warhol has never been worse. Tomato Cans for everyone! What a division!

Unfortunately, it’s probably going to take more than winning the AFC East to get the Patriots back to the Super Bowl.

The Belichick/Brady Patriots have never made it to a Super Bowl in a year in which they played on wild-card weekend. They have not played on wild-card weekend since 2009 and they haven’t won a road playoff game in 12 seasons.

The 2018 Patriots need a first-round bye. They need the cozy confines of Gillette.

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Which is why Sunday’s Steelers win hurts.


Dan Shaughnessy can be reached at dshaughnessy@globe.com