By: Bob George/BosSports.net
December 01, 2003

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This Lawyer Milloy business isn't quite over yet.

About the only negative that you can glean from the Patriots right at this time is that the opening day shutout at Buffalo unfortunately can still jump up and bite the Patriots on their playoff ankles. But by winning Sunday at Indianapolis, New England eliminated both Buffalo and the Jets from AFC East championship contention. Against most of the rest of the AFC, the Patriots win everything, including the games they have played since losing to Washington in Week 4.

With four weeks to go, the Patriots will finally be in a position to establish the first postseason standard of the 2003 season. The Patriots could have clinched a playoff berth this weekend, but Denver, Baltimore and Cincinnati all won when all had to lose. This really is irrelevant, as the Patriots have everything squarely in their hands with the possible exception of the number one seed in the conference.

If the Patriots win out, they are guaranteed the two seed no matter what happens to Kansas City. A 14-2 record would set a franchise best from a won-loss standpoint, but so would 12-4. But Kansas City could still finish 15-1, and the Patriots would then possibly become the newest incarnation of the 1998 Atlanta Falcons, who became the first team in NFL history to play a road playoff game with as many as 14 wins. Atlanta, by the way, beat the 15-1 Vikings and advanced to Super Bowl XXXIII.

With that as a backdrop, here is what is immediately at hand for the Patriots this weekend.

A win at home against Miami clinches the AFC East for the Patriots. Miami could still tie the Patriots at 11-5 in that scenario, but New England would win the tiebreaker based on a 2-0 season sweep. All weather reports for this weekend will be closely monitored, and Dave Wannstedt will put out a Mark Henderson watch if there is snow this Sunday.

Since the game has a 4:15 PM local start time, the chance for frigid conditions becomes greater. But this is early December, not late December, and weather could ultimately be a non-factor. Sometimes in New England, December afternoons can be palatable and at times even downright balmy. But the home crowd should help the Patriots no matter what, and Miami has not won in Foxborough since 2000.

According to PatsFans.com's capologist Miguel Benzan, there is another scenario where the Patriots can clinch a playoff spot. In this unlikely combination, the Patriots lock up a playoff berth if they tie Miami, combined with a Denver loss or tie and Baltimore/Cincinnati not ending in a tie. The Patriots have not been involved in a tie game since a 31-31 tie with San Diego in 1967, so don't expect this scenario to occur, although they came close to a tie against Houston last week and the last Miami game at Foxborough went to overtime.

Without being presumptuous nor guaranteeing anything, let's assume that the Patriots do clinch the division and run the table the rest of the way en route to a 14-2 mark. After Miami they have Jacksonville at home, the Jets on the road and Buffalo at home, all three teams with losing records at the moment. The Patriots go 14-2, which then begs the possibility of a one seed in the conference, as well as home field advantage throughout the playoffs.

The Patriots have never been a one seed, nor have they ever won as many as 14 games in a season. It would be rarefied air for the Patriots, a remarkable thing considering that they are one year removed from a Super Bowl championship. But four wins, and all four games are winnable, is a distinct possibility, especially given how well Bill Belichick prepares his team for each upcoming game. Jacksonville will be a trap, and the Jets will play the Patriots tough, but the Patriots will be out for blood in the other two games.

In this case, for the Patriots to get the top seed in the conference, Kansas City must either lose two of their remaining four games or lose their next game at Denver. If Kansas City finishes at 14-2, that one loss has to be the Denver game, as their final three games are all interconference games (Detroit, at Minnesota, Chicago). The Vikings could trip up the Chiefs at the Metrodome, but a loss there would be of no benefit to the Patriots in a tiebreaker scenario.

Currently the Patriots are 7-1 in the AFC, and Kansas City is 10-1. If the Patriots win out and Kansas City loses at Denver and then runs the table, the Patriots get the one seed based on a better conference record than Kansas City (11-1 versus 10-2). But if Kansas City loses one of the interconference games and beats Denver, the teams are then tied at 11-1 in the conference, and the tiebreaker goes to the next level, which is common games, minimum of four.

In the common games scenario, the opponents Kansas City and New England share are Houston, Denver, Cleveland and…remember the opening two paragraphs of this article…Buffalo. Against these opponents, Kansas City is a perfect 4-0. New England has one game left against one of these foes, the season finale against the Bills. But even if the Patriots do avenge Week 1, that shutout becomes the difference in this tiebreaker, as the loss to Buffalo puts the Patriots at 4-1 and thus the two seed in the playoffs behind the Chiefs (win percentage is what matters, not number of wins).

If New England does wrap up the division Sunday, the only two teams with any shot of taking the two seed away from the Patriots are Indianapolis and Tennessee. A twelfth win by the Patriots along the way shuts out everyone but these two teams for the second seed. Indianapolis plays Tennessee next week, but then has three easy games left versus Atlanta, Denver and at Houston. Tennessee also finishes with three winnable games, hosting Buffalo, travelling to Houston and hosting Tampa Bay. It is not that far fetched that one of these teams ends up 13-3 and the other 12-4. If this be true, the Patriots clinch a two seed if they go at least 3-1 the rest of the way.

Cynics suggest that it really doesn't matter if the Chiefs get the top seed; they feel that Kansas City will stumble in the divisional round and the Patriots will get their two playoff home games anyway. Despite their gaudy record, Kansas City has only five games on their schedule against teams with a winning record. Judging Kansas City on past home field playoff failures is not fair in that Marty Schottenheimer was their head coach in the mid-1990s and not Dick Vermeil. The Chiefs have the best offensive line in the game blocking for Priest Holmes, and their home crowd is one of the worst for a visiting team to play in front of.

Besides, the Patriots have never won at Arrowhead Stadium, and have not won in Kansas City at all since 1964. Suffice it to say that the Patriots will be huge Denver fans this weekend. It represents the last decent shot the Patriots have at their first-ever top seed in the conference.

Naturally, if Belichick ever got wind of one of his players thinking about anything other than a sea mammal this weekend, God help the poor laddie.


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