One win was all it took.
One road win over the New York Jets was all that was needed for some major tide turning for the New England Patriots. Now, all that doom and gloom about the Patriots and their league-worst defense being on an inevitable slide into an AFC wild card spot, is nowhere to be found.
Instead, the Patriots are in the driver's seat to win the division, a position made even more certain by New York's unbelievable, last-minute loss to the Denver Tebows last night.
It gets better. A division title could very well mean a first-round bye, as teams in the AFC West are too busy being mediocre to challenge for a spot among the top two seeds, and current top seed Houston could be in for a tough six weeks with Matt Leinart at the helm.
And, best of all, New England has the easiest remaining schedule in the league. Chiefs, Eagles, Colts, Redskins, Tim Tebow, Miami and Buffalo. No problem, right?
There's no doubt that New England will roll through that slate. The Patriots could lose one of those games, but for all intents and purposes, they'll be at least 12-4, a division champion and, chances are, one win away from the AFC championship game.
But could that same easy schedule that punches their ticket force them out?
After all, we've seen it before in sports. It happens often in college football, where teams blitz through cupcake schedules, drive up their national ranking and then fall apart once they finally face good teams in bowl games at the end of the season.
And wouldn't that be the worst way to try and get the one-and-done monkey off their back? Turn into an NFL version of Ohio State, have everyone calling them great in December only to get exposed against a good team in January?
The formula seems to be there. New England, riding high as it may be, still has a defense relying heavily on undrafted players and cast-offs from other teams. The Patriots could very well enter the playoffs at 13-3 but, barring some improvement in the next several weeks, this isn't a 13-3 team.
That's where the pressure falls on Bill Belichick and the New England coaching staff. He'll have to keep this team sharp, and have them playing teams like Washington and Miami the way it came out and played the Jets.
He'll have to keep the Patriots from peaking too early, and have them playing playoff-caliber football against teams that may just be playing out the string.
Belichick never had to worry about this before. In 2004, for instance, New England went 14-2 and was assured of a playoff spot before December even started. That team finished up with a schedule similar to this Patriots' team's and went on cruise control, losing to a 4-12 Dolphins' team and looking sloppy in a 21-7 win over a 2-14 49ers' squad.
Belichick didn't have to prepare that team mentally for the playoffs. That was a team that had won two Super Bowls already, and proven it knew the difference between December and January. Sure enough, that championship poise kicked in and the Patriots rolled to a third title.
This team doesn't have that same poise. The Patriots have shown that they're mentally tough, last week's win being exhibit A, but that doesn't necessarily equal playoff savvy. That comes from postseason experience and, so far, a large portion of this team has only two early exits to draw from.
So, Belichick has quite a task in these coming weeks. The easy schedule gives this team a great opportunity, and he has to make sure the Patriots seize it, rather than rest on it.
That Jets win has been the biggest win of the year so far. With smooth sailing on the way out, the Patriots could end up in position to earn a bigger one.
If they're not careful, however, it could do them as much harm as good.
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