How Do the Patriots Fit into NFL Playoff Picture After Week 10?

Marc FreshmanContributor INovember 12, 2012

FOXBORO, MA - OCTOBER 21: Tom Brady #12 of the New England Patriots reacts with Danny Woodhead #39 after a touchdown pass to teammate Rob Gronkowski #87 against the New York Jets at Gillette Stadium on October 21, 2012 in Foxboro, Massachusetts. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)
Jim Rogash/Getty Images

The New England Patriots completed their sweep of the Buffalo Bills on Sunday, bringing their divisional record to 3-0 and their overall record to 6-3.

They have seven games remaining, including matchups against the Colts (6-3), Jets (3-6), Dolphins (4-5), Texans (8-1), 49ers (6-2-1), Jaguars (1-8) and Dolphins (again).

The Patriots are good enough to beat all of those opponents.

But the Patriots have been unpredictable this season.

The Patriots should've been able to beat the Cardinals, Seahawks, Jets and Bills by double digits. But those teams took the Patriots to the brink, resulting in final scores that fell within the margin of a single possession. Two of those teams ended up beating the Patriots.

That's the problem with this team. They live in a murky reality where a 45-7 blowout over the Rams is just another day at the office, but so is a 37-31 squeaker over the Bills.

Therefore, it's tough to predict how next week's matchup with the Colts will shake out.

Will you be surprised if the Patriots win by two touchdowns? Will you be surprised if they win by a field goal? Will you be surprised if they lose by one point?

With the Patriots, all of those outcomes are extremely possible.

This is especially true when battling a tricky quarterback like Andrew Luck. He leads a tough group of guys who are collectively overachieving and stringing together a very nice season. They could surprise everybody and have an enormous effect on the landscape of the AFC.  

Plus, the Colts have two divisional games with the Texans down the road, which will further alter the playoff picture.

Of all the AFC contenders, though, it's the Broncos who find themselves with the most favorable remaining schedule. They'll play the Chargers, Chiefs, Buccaneers, Raiders, Ravens, Browns and Chiefs (again).

With that path, they'll likely find themselves in the hunt for a playoff bye.

For the Patriots, a playoff bye is unlikely. It's more likely that they'll wind up in the wild-card round.

That's a good thing. It'll give them an extra game to bridge the gap between what they want to have and what they actually have.

For example: They want to have an elite two-tight-end offense, just as they had last year. But what they have are two elite tight ends who have been trading injuries or recovering from injuries all season.

They want Brandon Lloyd and Tom Brady to have a magical relationship on the field. But what they have is a potentially magical relationship that hasn't shown much magic yet.

The pieces haven't come together. 

A wild-card game would be an extra opportunity for this team to improve on all of these elements and get their machine working at a high level. It gives them a better shot of beating great teams in later rounds.

Plus, they're good enough to win a wild-card game against a good opponent, like the Steelers. There's a solid shot of that matchup happening, and it's a good matchup for both sides.

With New England vs. Pittsburgh, there is no underdog. Either team could win without surprise. That kind of balance gets everyone away from the drama and brings it all back to football.

The Patriots tend to play well in that type of situation. They won their most evenly matched battle this season against Peyton Manning and the Broncos.

A wild-card game against the Steelers wouldn't guarantee a Patriots victory, but it would guarantee a very gutsy performance in a playoff situation.

That's a tremendously valuable experience for this team to have. It puts them in a position where they're playing their best football when it matters most. 

When the Patriots play their best, they can eliminate anybody.