New England Patriots

New England Patriots

New England Patriots

Thursday's showdown with Buffalo is one of four remaining games for the Patriots against teams they trail in the AFC standings. (Photo by Bryan M. Bennett/Getty Images)

  • We saw it from Cincy a year ago and Philly a month ago. A team whose playoffs begin weeks before the regular season ends gets on a roll that continues until the postseason’s pinnacle.

    First the Bengals, 7-6 after 13 weeks of the 2021 NFL campaign, reel off three straight victories in December and January, earn a Wild Card berth and rack up three more wins — one at top-seeded Tennessee, another at two-time defending AFC champ Kansas City — to reach the Super Bowl.

    Then along come baseball’s Phillies, who make a managerial change amid a 22-29 start, eke into the sixth and final spot in the National League’s newly-expanded tournament, sweep the favored Cardinals in St. Louis, upset the Braves and dispose of the Padres en route to the World Series.

    Each undergoing a reversal of fortune to wind up within one or two wins, respectively, of a championship. Each exhibiting how starkly the complexion of a season can be made over between December and February, August and October.

    In their own way, meaning the opposite way, last year’s Patriots exemplified the kind of about-face that can occur down the stretch of a long, grueling campaign. They were 9-4, atop the AFC standings and ended up out of the running on the first day of the playoffs, as part of a 1-4 finish.

    This season a 5-1 rebound from a 1-3 beginning put the Patriots on an inside track to the postseason. But after last Thursday’s 33-26 loss at Minnesota leaves them at 6-5 overall, they’re in eighth place in an American Football Conference whose seven-team single-elimination sprint to the Super Bowl starts in seven weeks.

    Of the Pats’ six remaining games, four are against teams they trail in the standings. One is Thursday’s meeting with Buffalo, the first of two encounters with the Bills. It’s followed by back-to-back visits to Arizona and Las Vegas and holiday home games vs. Cincinnati and Miami.

    According to FiveThirtyEight, the probability of a Patriots playoff appearance amounts to little more than a 1-in-3 chance, at 36 percent. Which is more than enough for them to think, with apologies to current Jets tight end C.J. Uzomah, who asked rhetorically as a Bengal in 2021, “Why not us?”

    As for us — you and I — rather than ask why, let’s explore how. How do the Pats pick up no fewer than the four wins they’ll likely need to step to the plate and take their postseason cuts a la Bryce Harper and Kyle Schwarber?

  • Start fast, Finish strong

    Agholor

    With Nelson Agholor’s 34-yard catch Thursday at Minnesota, the Patriots scored their first first-quarter touchdown of the season. (Photo by David Berding/Getty Images)

    Mac Jones’ 34-yard strike to Nelson Agholor 6 minutes, 39 seconds into the Thanksgiving night matchup with Minnesota marked the Patriots’ initial first-quarter touchdown this season. In fact, their 10 total points in Thursday’s opening 15 minutes were just five fewer than their first-quarter total the previous 10 games — 15 points on five field goals.

    Overall, the Patriots have been outscored by eight points in the first quarter this season. In contrast, the Bills are plus-17. Furthermore, while New England is plus-23 points in the second quarter, Buffalo is plus-52. 

    Through 11 weeks, the Pats are 5-1 when they score first and 1-4 when they don’t. As Bill Belichick said on Sunday, they’ll need their best game to beat the Bills. That begins by starting fast.

    And ends by, duh, finishing strong. At Minnesota, the Patriots faded offensively. Their final four possessions? Punt. Punt. Fourth-down incompletion. Time-expiring completion 58 yards short of where they needed to be to force overtime. 

    Meanwhile, in a Thanksgiving matinee at Detroit, Buffalo’s first four second-half possessions ended in an interception and three straight punts. But its last two resulted in 10 points in the final 2:45 of a 28-25 victory.  

    After driving 90 yards in 14 plays for a brief lead, the Bills drove 48 yards in four plays to set up a game-winning field goal by Tyler Bass. Quarterback Josh Allen completed 10 of his last 14 passes for 90 yards, serving up his best for last — a 36-yard heater to Stefon Diggs in the final 23 seconds.

    Beating them requires being better, from the first through 60th minutes.

  • Go green

    Henry

    Hunter Henry reacts to one of eight TD grabs in the red zone in 2021. He’s still looking to celebrate his first of 2022. (Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)

    Former Jaguars and Giants head coach Tom Coughlin had his own way of telling time. Clocks in his teams’ facilities were set five minutes ahead. While players for both franchises lived in the Eastern time zone, they worked on ‘Coughlin Time.’ 

    Coughlin also chose to uniquely color the field when discussing the most valuable 19 yards in football. What others think of as the ‘red zone,’ Coughlin called the ‘green zone.’ 

    In his Irish eyes, green meant go; red stood for stop. Obviously, defenses play for the stop; offenses go for green. 

    Playing off the same color scheme with a different metaphor, money downs occur inside the 20. Either you maximize profits or leave points on the table.

    Regardless of what we call it — here on out, we’ll revert to red zone — the Patriots have too often failed to fully cash in. At Minnesota, they went 0-for-3. Three red-zone drives. Thirteen total yards. Three field goals.

    Ranked 31st in the league, ahead of only Denver, the Pats have scored touchdowns on just 38.7 percent of red-zone opportunities. According to Pro-Football Reference, they’ve had 81 plays inside the 20-yard line. 

    Forty-three were rushing attempts. Eight of those were touchdowns. But Damien Harris hasn’t scored since Week 4 at Green Bay. Rhamondre Stevenson hasn’t plowed into the end zone since Week 8 vs. Chicago.

    Patriots quarterbacks have dropped back to pass 38 times in the red zone. They’ve thrown for four touchdowns and been sacked four times. Mac Jones’ three red-zone TD passes were targeted to Ty Montgomery, Jakobi Meyers and Stevenson. Bailey Zappe’s one found Tyquan Thornton.

    Tight ends Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry have been targeted nine times inside the 20 and caught four passes. Whereas Henry had eight catches, all for touchdowns, last season in the red zone, his two scores this fall came on 31- and 37-yard completions.

    Big receiver DeVante Parker was acquired in the offseason after making 26 red-zone grabs, including 15 for TDs, in 93 career games as a Dolphin. In his first 10 outings as a Patriot, Parker’s single red-zone reception lost a yard. His other red-zone target was intercepted.

    In five of the Patriots’ final six games, they’ll have to outscore offenses ranked in the NFL’s top 10 in points: Buffalo (2nd), Cincinnati (5th), Miami (6th) and Las Vegas (10th). The only way to keep up and eventually outscore them is by going green when in the red zone. 

  • Punt it again, Sam

    Martin

    Most of Sam Martin’s (8) work this season has involved holding for kicker Tyler Bass. The Pats need to make Martin punt more on Thursday. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

    Perhaps you’ve heard, ad nauseam. In two wins over the Patriots last season, the Bills didn’t punt. 

    Not. One. Single. Time.

    Leading up to their ‘victory formation’ kneel downs on Wild Card Weekend, Buffalo scored touchdowns on seven straight series. Their 47-17 rout marked the first time in NFL playoff history that a team scored at least seven TDs without punting or turning the ball over. 

    What’s more, the Bills faced third down only seven times. They converted the first six, before time expired on the seventh. Overall, Buffalo went 12-for-19 (.631) on third down and 3-for-4 on fourth down in its two victories over the Pats.

    Last Thursday, the Vikings converted 8-of-15 (.533) third-down tries after Miami, Baltimore, Green Bay and Chicago combined to go 28-for-57 (.491) in the Patriots’ first four losses. The Bills rank 2nd in third-down efficiency (50.8 percent), behind only Kansas City (.512). Allen has accounted for 41 first downs passing and 17 rushing. 

    On Thursday the Pats need to see less Allen and more Sam Martin, whose 24 punts are the fewest among ‘full-time’ punters this season. The only two punters to kick less, including New England’s Michael Palardy, played in just two games apiece.

    Accomplishing any and especially all of the three aims outlined above against the Bills is a big ask. But as shown in Buffalo’s losses to Minnesota and the Jets and even for much of its win at Detroit, it’s entirely possible.  

    To give themselves a chance, the Pats must avoid the kind of self-inflicted setbacks they’ve incurred of late in all those areas. Penalties. Negative plays. Situational gaffes. 

    If they don’t, we’ll have the answer to the question: why not them?  

    Bob Socci is in his 10th season calling play-by-play for the Patriots Radio Network on 98.5 The Sports Hub. Follow him on Twitter @BobSocci.

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