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Assessing the Patriots’ Playoff Chances

NFL Playoffs

With two consecutive losses to mar a 5-1 start, the Patriots sit at 5-3 and tied for the AFC East lead. Panic has begun to set in, and the question’s of Bill Belichick’s talent evauation are developing. As the season has reached it’s midway point, playoff races are heating up.

Below are the Patriots’ chances for a postseason birth, as well as their opponents’ paths to the playoffs.

Division

Throughout the first nine weeks of the season, the AFC East has been its most competitive since the 2008 season. The emergence of Buffalo coupled with the resurgence of the Jets have exacerbated New England’s current two-game losing streak. With eight games to play and another the second round of divisional games still to be played, there are several scenarios that could determine the AFC East final standings.

Below is a look at each team’s playoff chances.

New England (5-3)

If the Patriots can weather the storm in tough three-game stretch against the Jets, Chiefs and Eagles, the rest of the schedule sets up nicely. The final five games are against Indianapolis, at Washington and Denver, with the final two home contests against Miami and Buffalo.

Despite a two-game skid, New England’s saving grace could be the loss against the Giants. In terms of tie breaking procedures, the Patriots’ loss to an NFC opponent leaves their conference record at 4-2, while the Jets and Bills have AFC records of 4-3 and 3-2. respectively.

Prediction: 10-6 (Division Champion)

New York (5-3)

New England’s chief rival, New York, also has a favorable schedule to close out 2011. Following Sunday Night’s contest against the Patriots, the Jets travel to Denver for a Thursday evening game, host Buffalo, and then travel to Washington in Week 13.

However, New York’s three-game stretch from Weeks 14-16 will determine their playoff chances; home against the Chiefs, at Philadelphia, and a Week 16 showdown against the Giants. The Jets are at Miami for the final game of the season.

New York is playing extremely well during their three-game winning streak, and Rex Ryan coached teams have a tendency to play better as the weather worsens.

Prediction: 10-6 (Wild Card birth)

Buffalo (5-3)

The Bills face a far tougher schedule in the second half of the season. During their 5-3 start, Buffalo has been aided by five home games. That advantage comes to an end to close November however, as the Bills are on the road three-straight weeks; at Dallas, at Miami and at the Jets. Buffalo returns home on December 4 to battle Tennessee before traveling across the country to face San Diego. The Bills’ schedule eases up in Weeks 15 and 16 with home dates against the Broncos and Dolphins, before a Week 17 clash against the Patriots which could have playoff implications.

Buffalo’s road schedule combined with a lack of playoff experience should doom the Bills as the season concludes.

Prediction: 9-7 (Miss postseason)

Wild Card

If the Patriots are unable to secure the AFC East crown, their prospects for a Wild Card birth are very difficult. Baltimore and Pittsburgh are annual mainstays in the playoff race, but the emergence of Cincinnati has created the possibly for a Wild Card logjam. Both Tennessee and the loser of the Kansas City/Oakland race could also play spoiler come January.

Baltimore (6-2)

Despite their Monday Night slip-up against the Jaguars, the Ravens have rallied to top Arizona and Pittsburgh to right the ship. Baltimore’s sweep of Pittsburgh should be enough to overcome the Steelers, but a pair of contests against the Bengals in Week 11 and Week 17 could determine the AFC North Champion. Besides a Thanksgiving showdown against the 49ers, the Ravens do not face an opponent with a winning record the rest of the way.

Prediction: 12-4 (Division Champion)

Cincinnati (6-2)

The Bengal’s surprise first-half has included a pair of rookies carrying an offense, a top-five defense, and a Head Coach in Marvin Lewis that has Cincinnati believing. The Bengal’s two losses have been by a combined seven points to Denver (3-5) and San Francisco (7-1). However, with four games remaining against Baltimore and Pittsburgh, the schedule becomes much more difficult in the second half.

If the Bengals can continue to play tough, hard-nose football while receiving tangible combinations from Andy Dalton and AJ Green, Cincinnati should have enough firepower to reach the postseason for the first time since 2009.

Prediction: 10-6 (Wild Card birth)

Pittsburgh (5-3)

Fun fact: Following their Super Bowl appearances in 2005 and 2009, the Steelers missed the playoffs in the subsequent season. While a 5-3 start has been impressive, Pittsburgh’s age appears to finally be showing. Injuries to LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison have slowed down the defense, and with a pair of games against the Bengals and road contests against the 49ers and Chiefs remaining, the Steelers’ second-half schedule may doom the reigning AFC Champions.

Final Prediction: 9-7 (Miss postseason)

Tennessee (4-4)

Matt Hasselbeck’s play has put him in contention for the Comeback Player of the Year Award. His 13 touchdowns and 62.5 completion percentage have masked the disappearance of Chris Johnson. The Titans face a brutal second-half schedule however, with road games against the Falcons, Bills and Texans, while hosting both Tampa Bay and New Orleans.

Hasselbeck’s play should keep the Titans competitive, but a lack of firepower will cost Tennessee the postseason.

Prediction: 7-9 (Miss postseason)

Oakland/Kansas City

With the Chargers imploding in front of our very eyes, the AFC West race will be determined by the Chiefs or Raiders. Both teams have difficult schedules the rest of the way, with common opponents including both Green Bay and Chicago. Kansas City also plays New England, Pittsburgh and the Jets. Both teams should hover around the .500 mark all year, making Week 16′s Christmas Eve clash between Oakland and Kansas City extremely important.

Prediction: Oakland 9-7 (Division Champion), Kansas City 8-8 (Miss postseason)

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