By: Bob George/BosSports.net
December 18, 2006

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FOXBOROUGH -- If Patriot fans wanted to be real thinking people, they would have spent their Sunday morning watching the Jets and the Vikings instead of their faves.

Thanks to that pathetic performance the Patriots put on last weekend in Miami, the Patriots lost out on what was their best chance to clinch the AFC East, which had been a foregone conclusion and seemingly a rite of passage. The Jets helped out last week by losing to Buffalo, which would have given the Patriots the division had they beaten Miami. This week, the Patriots did their thing by abusing the woebegone Houston Texans at home, 40-7, but the Jets also did some abusing of their own in the Metrodome in Minneapolis. They beat the Vikings, 26-13, and actually have the inside track to the AFC East title, not the Patriots.

How, you ask. The Patriots are at 10-4 and two games up on the Jets. For the Patriots to clinch the AFC East, they need to win one of their remaining two games, or the Jets have to lose one of their remaining two games. If both teams finish 10-6, the Jets would win the division based upon a better conference record than the Patriots.

Now, after the Patriots? complete and total demolition of Houston on Sunday, you would think that their last two games are a piece of cake. One problem is that the Patriots completed their home schedule with their win over Houston. The other problem is that the Patriots have to play their remaining two games on the road, at Jacksonville and at Tennessee (these two teams played each other on Sunday, with the Titans prevailing, 24-17), and both very losable games for the Patriots. The Jets, meanwhile, get the schizophrenic Dolphins on the road and the terrible Raiders at home, and 10-6 is a definite possibility for the Jets.

The Patriots will first have to deal with a Jaguar team which is going to lick their chops at the Patriot defense if Vince Wilfork cannot play (he was inactive Sunday against the Texans). Two weeks ago, the Jaguars brutalized the Colts with 375 yards rushing as a team, and rang up 202 rushing yards in a losing effort against Tennessee. Maurice Jones-Drew has teamed with veteran Fred Taylor to form an incredible running back tandem, and the Patriots could well be susceptible to the run. The whole Jaguar team, in general, would love nothing more than to avenge the 28-3 playoff loss back in January, and many of the players are back.

If the Patriots should manage to go into AllTel Stadium (where they won their most recent Super Bowl) and win, then they have to deal with Tennessee in the season finale at LP Coliseum in Nashville. The last time the Patriots played in this stadium, they were abused 24-7 on a Monday night game late in the 2002 season. This time, they will run into a Titan team peaking right now, with rookie phenom Vince Young just now figuring out how things go in the NFL. Ironically, they would not have to deal with David Givens, as he has been placed on injured reserve.

If the Patriots can manage one win in either of these games, then they win the division. If that happens, what seed will they draw?

The smart money says that they get the same seed as last year, the four. Even though Pittsburgh showed the world last year that a six seed is good enough for a Vince, the four seed won't disappoint anyone except for those who are devastated that the Patriots won't get a first round bye. Even if they win both games and finish 12-4, they likely don?t finish ahead of the other division champs, San Diego, Indianapolis and Baltimore (who has clinched a playoff berth and can wrap up the division if the Colts lose Monday night).

The Chargers play at Seattle and host Arizona, and should nail down the one seed with at least one win, definitely with two wins. The Colts, losers of three of their last four games, would need to win two of their last three games to clinch finishing ahead of New England. They face a tough challenge Monday night against Cincinnati, but should win their last two games against Houston and Miami. Baltimore finishes with a road trip to Pittsburgh and a home date with Buffalo. One win also clinches the Ravens finishing ahead of the Patriots, who would have the Patriots on better conference record.

Who the Patriots would play is too close to call right now. Should Cincinnati defeat Indianapolis on Monday night, four teams in the AFC would be at 8-6 (Cincinnati, Jacksonville, Denver and the Jets). Four more teams are currently at 7-7 (Pittsburgh, Kansas City, Buffalo and Tennessee). Only Cleveland, Oakland and Houston are eliminated from the playoffs in the AFC. With two games left, having this many teams still in the playoff mix makes speculation as to who the Patriots would play next to impossible at this time.

The Patriots had absolutely no trouble with Houston on Sunday, manhandling them like they should have done with Detroit two weeks ago. David Carr, playing against the Patriots for the first time in his career (he was injured in 2003), threw four interceptions and finished with a passer rating of 29. Despite only outgaining the Texans in total yards, 230 to 198, Tom Brady was in clear and total control of things, finishing with a passer rating of 108.8. He threw two touchdown passes, no interceptions, and carved up the Texan defense despite the ongoing absence of any deep threat.

Beating the Texans 40-7 proves absolutely nothing in the long run other than the Patriots did what they had to do against a weak opponent. They won?t have it this easy the rest of the way, not against Jacksonville, not against Tennessee, not against any playoff opponent. The Texans have a long way to go and still don?t understand that they have to protect Carr before he can develop into a quarterback who can get this team to the next level. They won?t run into these issues along the way to a date in Miami in February, if that?s where they aspire to go.

So next week, if the Patriots were thinking about coasting the rest of the way and priming themselves for the playoffs, they need to think again. They need to assume that the Jets will win out and that they need to get one win to nail down the division and a playoff berth. They will be sorely tested in run defense and pass protection against Jacksonville, and they have to figure out how to deal with Young in the finale. These need to be the team priorities right now if the Patriots even want to make the playoffs at all.

If they do get in, they may find pickings easier than these next two games. San Diego is crippled by a lousy playoff coach in Marty Schottenheimer, the Colts can?t stop the run and are known for classic playoff chokes, and Baltimore still must rely too much on their defense to win games. But Bill Belichick will not allow the Patriots to look further than the Jaguars next weekend, and correctly so.

For those of you who love to look ahead, you also need to pull in the reins and concentrate only on Jacksonville next weekend. The last thing Patriot Nation needs is for Eric Mangini to hoist the AFC East flag this year.


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