If the goal is to get all the ugly performances out of the way before the playoffs, the New England Patriots are on the right track.
At least now, though, the Patriots know that they are the ones who hold the key to their playoff run.
If the Patriots execute well, a deep run in the playoffs is in their future. Commit costly mistakes, as they have for two straight weeks, and the Patriots could easily lose to any of their playoff opponents.
"We keep playing like that, we won't last much longer." - Matt Slater #patriotstalk— Tom E. Curran (@tomecurran) December 23, 2012
Certainly, most of the AFC playoff teams will do better at capitalizing off those errors than the Jaguars did on Sunday.
Tom Brady, in particular, has made some uncharacteristic mistakes, throwing two interceptions in back-to-back games for the first time since Weeks 12 and 13 of the 2009 season. It wasn't all on Brady, though, The Patriots' quarterback was sacked just three times in five games from Week 6 to Week 12, and has been sacked 11 times in the four games from Week 13 to Week 16, including three times against Jacksonville.
The Patriots didn't convert their first third down until 20:30 into the game. They didn't score their first touchdown until 23 seconds remained in the first half. For an offense that leads the league in third-down conversion percentage (49.49) and ranks second in first-quarter scoring (7.4), this was not a good day.
That's especially true considering the strength of their opponent.
The Patriots' offense got a pass for last week's sluggish start against the 49ers' vaunted defense, which ranks No. 1 in scoring. This week, it was gifted an easy opponent with the league's 29th-ranked defense, but looked arguably worse against a much more favorable opponent.
To put Sunday's performance in perspective, the Patriots have scored 23 or fewer points just four times this season, including the win over Jacksonville. The Patriots' total of 349 yards was their third-lowest total of the season.
How much do injuries play a role? The Patriots got an extended look at a lot of their younger players against Jacksonville, including three rushing yards on five carries for running back Brandon Bolden.
We expect to see struggles from the Patriots' offense against the league's top defenses. But against a Jaguars defense that has most recently been smacked around by the Miami Dolphins and the Buffalo Bills, we expect to see the Patriots sharp and in top form.
Given that New England played so poorly, it must be thrilled it came out of today's game in even better position for a playoff run. While the Patriots were busy struggling with the lowly Jaguars, the Houston Texans were getting beaten soundly by the Minnesota Vikings, opening up a larger window to a first-round bye, once considered out of reach for the Patriots.
The Patriots have been to the Super Bowl five out of the six times they've had a first-round bye under Bill Belichick. That being said, a first-round bye doesn't guarantee anything—just ask the 2010 Patriots.
If you're a believer in the importance of a team playing its best heading into the playoffs, your confidence is probably a bit shaken with the Patriots apparently playing their worst.
There's no telling now whether these struggles will continue into the postseason. But with Brady and Belichick leading the charge, perhaps there's no tandem better equipped to get things turned around.
Erik Frenz is the AFC East lead blogger for Bleacher Report. Be sure to follow Erik on Twitter and "like" the AFC East blog on Facebook to keep up with all the updates. Unless specified otherwise, all quotes are obtained firsthand or via team press releases.
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