The Patriots are as vulnerable as they have been all season. The Chiefs are as formidable as they have been all season. In other words, life isn’t getting any easier for the football team from New England. A day after losing their grip on the No. 1 seed in the AFC, they have to make sure they don’t lose their grip on the rest of December, a month they have historically dominated.
Before the sting of Sunday night’s loss in Houston even has a chance to wear off, before you even get to digest the reality that Baltimore currently holds the rights to host the AFC title game, one glance at the schedule makes it hurt anew.
With surging Kansas City coming to town, the Patriots don’t get to catch their breath. Unlike last season, when they were able to go toe-to-toe and blow-for-blow with Patrick Mahomes & Co., delighting fans with offensive fireworks in a game ultimately decided by who had the ball last (it was the Patriots), another chapter of offensive stagnancy Sunday night in Houston reminds us not only how long ago that was, but also how unlikely it seems it will be again.
Of course, the Patriots have a solid hold on the No. 2 seed and its accompanying home-field advantage through the divisional round. And of course they will be at home Sunday, where they haven’t lost a regular-season game since Oct. 1, 2017. But that doesn’t feel like much consolation right now, not after a national undressing at the hands of the Texans.
No matter what angle you choose to look at New England’s statistically impressive 10-2 record, something is off. The offense can’t get moving. The defense can’t be perfect. And there’s no obvious answer riding in to save the day, no Rob Gronkowski making a triumphant late-season return to give old buddy Tom Brady one more trusted target.
The Patriots have to get better with what they have, and to listen to Bill Belichick on Monday morning was to hear a coach who expects precisely that.
“We had our chances, we just couldn’t . . . like I said, in the end we just couldn’t make enough plays and couldn’t score enough points,” he said, speaking only a few hours after a 6 a.m. touchdown back in New England. “They did a good job. I thought we had our chances; we’ve just got to make more out of them.”
Yet any football viewer can see that the sum of the offensive parts around Brady does not add up to enough game-changing or playmaking ability to blow open a game. As they say in the meeting room: Film don’t lie. Brady’s two most trusted targets, the ones he’s already won with, are being stopped. Julian Edelman is being blanketed by defenders. James White is being covered as if he were a receiver.
Other options such as Mohamed Sanu and Phillip Dorsett just aren’t fast enough to exploit one-on-one coverage. And rookie N’Keal Harry just doesn’t have enough experience yet to demand that opponents game-plan around him. Throw in an offensive line shredded by injury and the road toward the playoffs is undeniably treacherous.
The next speed bump is the Chiefs. For all their early issues — an injury to Mahomes, a defense that couldn’t stop anyone — they seem to be peaking at the right time, still replete with speed and firepower on offense and finally figuring out how to take the ball away on defense. The Patriots historically have owned December; Belichick’s loss Sunday dropped him to 61-14 in December across his 20 seasons with the Patriots. He has also won nine straight December games at Gillette, going back to a 2015 loss to Philadelphia.
This Sunday’s game is followed by a trip to one-win Cincinnati and then two last dates at home, against Buffalo (not as easy an opponent now as earlier in the season) and Miami (also not quite the patsy it was back in Week 2).
The Patriots definitely could win out, but that doesn’t guarantee getting them back to the top seed. Baltimore, fresh off its thrilling win over NFC powerhouse San Francisco, has two home games and two road games remaining. They go to Buffalo next weekend, host the Jets, travel to Cleveland, and close with the Steelers at home. Winnable all, but no guarantees here either.
Still, while the Ravens soar, the Patriots scratch and claw for every point.
“We’re battling, we’re trying as hard as we can, and hopefully we can make enough plays and be the best we can be. It all remains to be seen,” Brady told reporters in Houston.
“You can make a bunch of predictions and so forth, but that’s not what it’s about. It’s about going out there and doing it. A lot of guys made some plays tonight, try to build on it and see if we can do better next week.”
For Belichick, the math is either too complicated or, at the very least, too premature. Asked if he pays attention to the conference standings, he said, “No. The only thing we can do anything about is the next game. So, focus on Kansas City, and I’m sure we’ll all add it up at the end.”
No matter which way you look at it, though, it’s a complicated equation. And it’s not getting any easier.