If you're a New England Patriots fan, you took a look at this year's schedule when it was released in April, glanced down at the second half and had to smile.
The Patriots play only one game after Nov. 1 that isn't either at home or in sunny, tranquil Florida. Surely, this was going to be like last year, when the Patriots went 8-0 against bad, injury-ravaged team after bad, injury-ravaged team, giving them the bye week that proved so crucial during a run to Super Bowl XLVI.
Instead, what was looking like a cakewalk back to the playoffs could end up being a winter test for the Patriots.
The Dolphins have been a tough opponent all year. The Jets, while in free fall from week to week, have already shown that they're still going to play the Patriots tough. And two of the NFL's toughest teams, the Texans and the 49ers, remain in December.
The most surprising challenge, however, is in the Indianapolis Colts, who travel to Foxboro on Nov. 18. The worst team in football last year, Indianapolis has been revitalized by top overall pick Andrew Luck, who has brought back the Colts' aerial attack and lifted his team to a 5-3 start.
With the problems the Patriots have had in pass coverage and in closing out games, that's a troubling amount of potential pitfalls ahead for New England.
The sharper-than-expected teeth of the schedule's second half likely won't make an impact in the Patriots' playoff chances. Even with the problems New England's had this season, it's hard to imagine any other team winning the AFC East. Nothing's clinched, but it's a good bet the Patriots will be playing football into January.
But in New England throughout the years, playoff seeding has been critical. And that's where the Patriots could take it on the chin.
The Patriots, under the guidance of Bill Belichick and leadership of Tom Brady, have been to five Super Bowls, but captured first-round byes en route to each one. An early-season slump saddled the Patriots with three preventable losses, and now that coveted bye is in jeopardy.
The Ravens and Texans are currently ahead of the Patriots in conference standing, with Baltimore owning the head-to-head edge thanks to a Week 3 win over New England.
The last team to clinch a top-two seed in the AFC with five losses was Tennessee back in 2002, meaning that, if history holds up, the Patriots can afford only one more loss among a group of opponents including the Texans, 49ers, the Dolphins twice and the Colts—and that's not counting potential trap games against the Bills, Jaguars and Jets.
The factor in New England's favor is that the AFC has been far weaker so far than the NFC, where the defending champion Giants are currently a fourth seed.
The Texans are poised to cruise to a bye, but away from Houston, the picture gets blurry. Baltimore has slumped lately and is trying to bounce back from major defensive losses. Pittsburgh has looked vulnerable this year, and the Patriots control their destiny against the Broncos, thanks to their head-to-head win.
So the bye isn't out of the question. But it won't come easy.
New England can at least make the job easier by sweeping through November. Beating Buffalo, Indianapolis, the Jets and Miami on Dec. 2 would put the Patriots at 9-3, and splitting against Houston and San Francisco could still keep the hopes for a bye alive.
A stumble in the next few games would, in all likelihood, make wins over both the 49ers and Texans mandatory. Given the inconsistency the Patriots have shown so far, it's hard to imagine them completing that task.
The Patriots do have a trump card in all of this. They've been as good as anyone in the league at getting hot as the weather's gotten cold. Catching fire at this time of year has been their forte, and if they do so again, another bye and good path to the Super Bowl could be in the works again.
But it won't be easy. Nothing's been easy for New England this season, and the way the schedule looks, the story won't be changing this winter.
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