By: Bob George/
December 26, 2008

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When you place your season in the hands of your sworn enemy, don't expect a warm and fuzzy result.

You can hem and haw all you want about how the Patriots "deserve" to make the playoffs, but moral victories in the NFL simply don't exist. If you qualify you go, and if you don't, you don't. This is the ultimate in overstating the obvious, but every Patriot fan is going to need to be reminded of this if things don't break properly on Sunday.

You all know what needs to happen. Patriots win, first and foremost, at Buffalo. Then the Jets have to lose at home against Miami for the Patriots to win the division, or the Baltimore Ravens have to lose at home against the Jacksonville Jaguars to earn a Wild Card berth. The latter is a pipe dream, with Baltimore a 12 ½-point favorite to nail down a playoff berth at home. The Jets, on the other hand, are 2 ½-point favorites to defeat Miami, if they have a mind to do so.

A major announcement from the NFL came down earlier in the week, regarding starting times of these three games. Fearful that the Jets could indeed lay down on purpose, the NFL switched the Jets-Miami game and the Baltimore-Jacksonville game to 4:00 PM EST, leaving the Patriots and Bills at the 1:00 PM EST hour. The league figures that the Jets will still need to play to win if they play alongside the Baltimore game, given that if the Patriots win, the Jets can no longer win the AFC East, but could steal the last Wild Card with a Baltimore loss.

Unfortunately, the league whiffed on this one. What the league should have done was to leave the Patriots and the Jets at 1:00 PM, and move only the Baltimore game to 4:00 PM. This was the one sure way to ensure the Jets would play to win; if the Patriots won, the Jets would still need to wait three more hours to see if their season would be ended with a Baltimore win. In the scenario the league came up with, if the Patriots win and the Ravens blow out Jacksonville early, the Jets would no longer have any motivation to play hard unless Eric Mangini's job is on the line with a Jet loss. With Miami needing to win the game just as badly and with Woody Johnson hating the Patriots as much as Mangini does, you could very well see the Jets giving up so as to not allow their hated enemy to win the division title with nothing in it for them.

Did the league do this on purpose to pay the Patriots back for last year's videotaping scandals? That is a question for another day. But there is no doubt that the Patriot playoff position right now is precarious, and the rescheduling of the games did nothing to help them at all.

Of course, you could very well forget about the "needing other teams' help angle. Unfortunately the Patriots won eleven games when they needed to win twelve. The five losses for the most part left a ton of regrets, and the Patriots could very well have been 14-2 but for a key dropped pass, a questionable personal foul call, a defensive breakdown and a lack of proper defensive adjusting.

Be it 14-2 or 11-5, could anyone have imagined the Patriots doing it without Tom Brady? And also without Rodney Harrison, Laurence Maroney, Adalius Thomas, and Asante Samuel? The Patriot season of 2008 will be defined by overcoming catastrophic injuries and the loss of their best cover corner to free agency, not by what they didn't do in the five losses they suffered one year removed from a perfect regular season.

The symbol of 2008, whether he plays in the postseason or not, will be Matt Cassel. If Brady manages to come back in 2008 at full strength, Cassel will have to play somewhere else next year. Cassel's entire college and pro career has been as an understudy to great quarterbacks. That will change in 2009, as Cassel should never have to back anybody up ever again.

Bringing him along slowly, Josh McDaniels helped Cassel gain the confidence he needed in running the entire Patriot offense. While it is true that the Patriot competition in December hasn't exactly been the Rolls-Royce of the NFL, Cassel has still looked awfully good as Patriot quarterback for the most part this season. If he goes to somewhere like Detroit, he may flounder like all the rest of the players on that woebegone team, but with the right coaching, he could certainly lead a comeback for that team quite well.

With Sammy Morris and LaMont Jordan now healthy, the Patriot running attack is so good that Maroney may be a luxury instead of the featured back. Having to rely on BenJarvus Green-Ellis in the middle of the season yielded only mixed results. Now that these guys are hitting on all cylinders, it's a shame that we may have to wait until 2009 to see them at their very best.

Perhaps the most surprising element of the 2008 season was the return of linebackers Junior Seau and Rosevelt Colvin. These guys are the P.J. Browns of the Patriots, who managed to come out of retirement and fit right in. These guys are no longer the kind of players you win Super Bowls with, but the fact that they were able to come in and play respectably is quite remarkable.

It was clear early in the season that if the Patriots were not going to repeat as conference champs, it would be because of the secondary and not because of Cassel. If the Patriots do indeed see their season come to an end on Sunday, the defensive backs will ultimately bear the burden of being the prime cause. Deltha O'Neal wasn't the answer in replacing Samuel, and Ellis Hobbs continues to be overrated at cornerback. Losing Harrison had its usual residual effect on the unit, as his quarterbacking skills are commensurate with his trademark physical style of play. Without Harrison to set coverage and assignments, the patchwork unit was exposed at times this season.

Patriot Nation is hoping beyond hope that the Jets will find it within themselves to play hard all game long and try to win, assuming the Patriots take care of business in Buffalo on Sunday. The Jets would also knock out the Dolphins with a win should the Patriots win their game, so here's hoping the Jets have a little bit of hatred also for the Fish as well as for the Pats.

The last time the Patriots needed Brett Favre to save the Patriot season, he failed miserably in 2002 when his Packers played the Jets in that season's finale. Chad Pennington would love to stick it to his former team on the road. Things simply don't look very good for the Patriots on Sunday.

But you never know. They still have to play the games. Go Jets.