By: Bob George/
December 14, 2008

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OAKLAND -- How perfectly ironic, following the first ever 16-0 season with being the only team in NFL history to go 11-5 and not make the playoffs.

With lost tiebreakers still hanging over the Patriots' head like the Sword of Damocles, the Patriots managed to hang in there in the thick of things in the AFC East. You have a division with three 9-5 teams, something no one really anticipated at season's beginning, but the Patriots cannot really enjoy their record since at this time it is not good enough to get them into the postseason.

The day began with both Miami and the Jets winning tough home games against inferior opponents. The Dolphins struggled through a defensive battle with the 49ers before finally prevailing in the end, 14-9. The Jets should have lost at home to the Bills, but an offensive blunder by Buffalo late in the contest which resulted in a J.P. Losman fumble being returned by Shawn Ellis for the winning touchdown gave the Jets a 31-27 win. Both Patriot divisional opponents won barely at home against teams they should have beaten handily.

The Patriots had a similar type opponent, the hideous Oakland Raiders, but they were on the road, on the west coast for the second straight week. In the rain at the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum (the same name of this stadium when the Oakland A's won their three World Series in the 1970s), the Patriots blasted Oakland early, then coasted to a 49-26 win to rejoin the three-way tie in the division. The Patriots won their first game here in Oakland since 1978, one month after the late Darryl Stingley was paralyzed on the same field, a game where the interim placekicker for the Patriots was named Nick Lowery.

The Patriots pretty much remain the same where the playoffs are involved, at least when you talk division title. Should Miami and the Jets both win next week, the Patriots would be shut out of winning the division since both teams meet in the season finale. The Patriots need both of these teams to lose one more game, but one of them will win the finale, barring a tie. Both teams play road games in very hostile environments next week, with Miami heading to Kansas City and the Jets making the long journey to Seattle. But both the Chiefs and Seahawks are in down years, and both games are winnable for the Dolphins and Jets. Because of the venues, they are also both losable, and that gives the Patriots some hope.

The Patriots come home next week to take on the NFC West champion Arizona Cardinals, then head to Buffalo to complete the season. The Patriots will be favoured in both games. Arizona, making its first trip to Foxborough in 12 years, lost at home to Minnesota, 35-14, but could pose a problem for the Patriots given their difficulties in stopping the pass.

The one thing which helped the Patriots took place in Baltimore. Rallying late for the season week in a row, Pittsburgh nipped the Ravens, 13-9, to clinch the AFC North. With Baltimore losing, they now join the Patriots and the rest of the AFC East at 9-5. Like everyone else, the Ravens win a tiebreaker with the Patriots, but the Ravens play at Dallas next week, a game they could very well lose. That would open the door for the Patriots to slide in as a Wild Card, and since the Jets and Miami play each other in the season finale, the Patriots would finish ahead of one of them if they win out.

Basically, the playoffs come down to three things. The Patriots absolutely must win out, they must hope that both Miami and the Jets lose one of their two remaining games, and that Baltimore loses next week at Dallas. The division means a home playoff game and likely the three seed, a Wild Card means no playoff home games and most likely the six seed.

Matt Cassel, who will head back down south to attend his father's funeral on Tuesday before returning home, celebrated his father's life with four touchdown passes in what was generally a very easy victory. The Raiders early on looked like a team which had already mailed the game in (have you ever seen a get-on-the-bus game in Week 15?) after falling behind, 21-0 in the first quarter. The Patriots let the Raiders hang around, sort of, with some defensive lapses, a special team lapse and a tipped pass which was intercepted, but overall there was no way the Patriots would lose this one. The Patriots had too much talent, the Raiders too much of a lack of it.

Randy Moss came back to his last place of employment and caught two touchdown passes, and looked delighted in doing so. Another former Raider, LaMont Jordan, completed the scoring in the fourth quarter with a 49-yard touchdown run off right tackle, giving himself 97 yards rushing. Sammy Morris chipped in with 114 yards rushing, and both Morris and Jordan averaged over eight yards a carry. Cassel, in an un-Brady-like performance, completed passes to only four different receivers, but all four averaged double digits in yards per catch. At least Cassel was consistent: Moss had 66 receiving yards, Wes Welker 69, Kevin Faulk 67.

There was a weird sequence in the second quarter which had Patriot Nation scratching its heads. After Johnnie Lee Higgins torched Ellis Hobbs for a 56-yard scoring pass late in the first quarter to put the Raiders on the board, the teams exchanged three touchdowns in the span of 26 seconds. Morris scored on a 29-yard run off right tackle (same as Jordan's fourth quarter run), but Justin Miller, the former Jet, torched the Patriots for a 91-yard kickoff return to make it 28-14 Patriots. Not to be outdone, Hobbs took the ensuing kickoff and rambled 95 yards for a touchdown. Hobbs continues to be better at returning kicks than covering receivers; Ronald Curry caught a 10-yard scoring pass in the third quarter with Hobbs blowing the coverage.

The Patriot pass coverage was once again suspect at best, and will be exposed by some team in the playoffs if the Patriots do indeed make it that far. But the Raiders were in no position to do much of anything with the Patriot offense. Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, the former Patriot linebacker coach, was visibly upset at his defensive unit all game long. The only saving grace is that at least the Raider offense never gave up and did the best they could with what little they had to work with.

For their part, Justin Fargas (son of Starsky And Hutch's Antonio Fargas) managed 70 yards rushing, and JaMarcus Russell, the top draft pick last year, did manage an 88.4 quarterback rating on 17 of 31 passing for 242 yards and two touchdowns. The Raiders were tenth in the league in rushing going into this game, but seem like they are just a few players away from being a decent all-around offensive unit. Russell does seem like a great prospect for down the road, but for right now he will continue to take his lumps against teams like the Patriots.

The Patriots will concentrate on the Cardinals this week, while the fan base will be drinking the good health of the Seahawks, Chiefs and Cowboys. Those fans who remember 1980 and the 10-6 team which failed to make the playoffs will be a hundred times more disappointed this season if this 11-5 record comes about with no January action to show for it.

The Patriots can control how they handle their injuries, they simply cannot control their destiny.