The Patriots are entering the heat of the playoff hunt.
After posting a 2-2 record in September, the Patriots managed to go 3-1 in October. Two weeks into November, they are now in sole possession of first place in the AFC East. Although, considering all the hype surrounding New England heading into the campaign, it's fare to say that the team has yet to run on all cylinders.
"We're at where we really deserve to be," the team's quarterback told WEEI-FM on Tuesday. "I don't think we've played any better than our record. We don't deserve to be anything better than we are."
Brady is correct; no team is better than what their record indicates. In this day and age, NFL franchises in the rearview mirror are closer than they appear. Brady knows that, head coach Bill Belichick knows that—heck, even tight end Rob Gronkowski knows that. Consequently, the postseason picture for the Patriots is anything but guaranteed. From here on out, New England must beat the teams they're supposed to beat by minimizing their deficiencies.
Ideally, the Patriots finish regular-season play with nothing less than an 11-5 record. That mark would likely be enough to secure the division over the New York Jets, Miami Dolphins and the Buffalo Bills, all of whom are currently below a .500 winning percentage.
Scanning the road ahead, the Patriots will soon face-off against both young talent and proven veterans. But no matter who New England plays, they all can pose a threat. After all, the Patriots have been challenged by some unlikely quarterbacks this year.
Tennessee Titans' QB Jake Locker threw for 229 yards, one touchdown and one interception against New England in Week 1. In Week 6, Seattle Seahawks' greenhorn Russell Wilson tossed three touchdowns versus the Pats and totaled 293 passing yards. Even in Week 7 against the Jets, Mark Sanchez racked up 28 completions for 328 yards, a touchdown and a pick.
With the season reaching a fever pitch, the following roadblocks lie in the way of a playoff spot for New England.
The Indianapolis Colts on Nov. 18
Will the defensive fortune change at Gillette Stadium Nov. 18 when No. 1 draft pick Andrew Luck and the Indianapolis Colts pay a visit? The 6-3 Colts are playing great football with Luck under center and dependable wide receiver Reggie Wayne still catching balls.
Indianapolis has made a smooth transition away from Peyton Manning. On top of that, the Colts are willing themselves to victory for their head coach Chuck Pagano, whose leukemia has recently been pushed into remission.
The Patriots can't sleep on Indy, but they should be able to run on them. The Colts have allowed an average of over 120 rushing yards per game and sit in the middle of the pack in terms of points allowed, per ESPN.com. New England needs to take advantage of the Colts' weaknesses and keep Luck off the field.
The New York Jets on Nov. 22
Following the Colts, it's back to the Jets. Mark Sanchez ripped up the defense last time these two foes encountered one another, but the Patriots squeaked by with an overtime win.
Now, the Patriots will have to go to MetLife Stadium to defeat their AFC East rivals.
New England made Jets' receivers Jeremy Kerley and Stephen Hill look like Pro Bowlers on the Oct. 21. The two combined for 11 catches and 175 yards. Perhaps the move of Devin McCourty to safety on a full-time basis and the acquisition of troubled but talented cornerback Aqib Talib will close down the passing lanes.
On the same token, perhaps those moves wont help. New England has allowed 285 yards per game this season, according to ESPN.com. It's up to New England's defense to make the Jets look like the 30th-ranked offense in the NFL.
The Miami Dolphins on Dec. 2
After the Jets' tilt at MetLife, the Patriots will go to Sun Life Stadium down in Miami, where they've struggled against the Dolphins in the past.
According to Pro-Football-Reference.com, the Patriots have gone 6-4 in Miami since Oct. 6 of 2002. However, the Pats have notched wins in their last two slates in Miami.
For the Patriots, it will be critical to pressure Dolphins' first-round pick and starting quarterback Ryan Tannehill. The Texas A&M product has shown promising flashes, even without the benefit of a true No. 1 option at wide receiver.
A Tough Two Weeks
Barring upsets against the new-look Colts, Jets and Dolphins, the Patriots will be 9-3 through Week 13.
Nonetheless, that is when things will get a little rocky for New England. The Patriots will welcome the Houston Texans and San Francisco 49ers on back-to-back weeks. The Texans and 49ers have allowed the third- and second-least amount of yards this year, cites ESPN.com. Not to mention, both teams have lost just three games combined.
Even if the Patriots fall to both Houston and San Francisco, they still would be in a good spot to cement a playoff spot with a 9-5 record. That is, unless the Jacksonville Jaguars and Dolphins upend New England during the final two weeks of the regular season.
The Jacksonville Jaguars on Dec. 23
In Week 16, the Patriots will travel to Jacksonville's EverBank Field, where they will battle the currently 1-8 Jaguars.
The Jaguars have been outscored 246 to 127 this season and second-year QB Blaine Gabbert is still adjusting to the NFL game. With that in mind, this one could be lopsided. The Jags' only win this year came in Week 3 against the Colts, when tailback Maurice Jones-Drew went off for 177 rushing yards and a touchdown.
The Miami Dolphins on Dec. 30
Marching towards the final game of the regular season, the Patriots could very well be sporting a 10-5 record. Another game in the win column is crucial; that's where the Dolphins come into the picture.
Facing Miami at home to close out the year has the recipe of a trap game. Expect to see the Phins test New England's secondary. Then again, expect Tom Brady to test Miami's secondary, since the Dolphins have let up nearly 300 passing yards per game this season, per ESPN.com.
New England's efforts to end the season respectably at 11-5 will clash with Miami's efforts to derail the Patriots. This game should be closer than many would anticipate. Still, with the Dolphins coming off a 37-3 shellacking by way of the Tennessee Titans, it's hard not to pencil in the Patriots as the victors in this one.
The Playoff Picture
The Patriots are well aware that 11 wins doesn't always equal a playoff berth. New England went 11-5 and missed the postseason in 2008.
The best scenario to avoid a repeat of 2008 is to win out. But the more palatable scenario for the Patriots is to defeat inferior opponents and win out the division.
That is something the Patriots can do. According to Glen Farley of EnterpriseNews.com, New England finishes stronger than they start:
Over 121/2 seasons under Belichick, the Patriots have gone 68-36 in the first half and 76-20 in the second half, with the end result being nine AFC East division titles that have led to five conference championships and three Super Bowl crowns.