New England Patriots

FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS - SEPTEMBER 26: Head coach Bill Belichick and Mac Jones #10 of the New England Patriots walk off the field after the loss to the New Orleans Saints at Gillette Stadium on September 26, 2021 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

Two games.

That’s how quickly the Patriots fell from first to sixth place in the AFC standings, from playing for a possible first-round playoff bye and Divisional home game to fighting for inclusion on Wild Card weekend.

Two games.

That’s how little is left of a season that’s included a 2-4 start featuring agonizing losses to NFC division champs Tampa Bay and Dallas; a seven-game winning streak thrusting them back into national conversations about Super Bowl contention; and back-to-back post-bye losses to playoff-bound Indianapolis and Buffalo.

No time at all, and more than enough to change trajectory again and transform an ever-evolving narrative.

Take today. A win here (over Jacksonville), a loss there (in either Nashville, where Miami plays, or Indy, where Las Vegas visits) and the Pats are guaranteed an 18th game on top of the NFL’s first-ever 17-game schedule.

  • Nov 28, 2021; Jacksonville, Florida, USA; Jacksonville Jaguars linebacker Josh Allen (41) looks at the quarterback during the first half against the Atlanta Falcons at TIAA Bank Field. Mandatory Credit: Matt Pendleton-USA TODAY Sports

    Other avenues exist — involving a tangled mess of ties and losses — to reach an 18th playoff berth since 2001. But the most straightforward on this Sunday is to take care of their own business and get an assist from the Titans or Colts.

    The first part of the equation involves the 2-13 Jaguars, whose tumultuous 2021 marks their 10th season with double-digit losses in the past 11 years and has extended their road losing skid to 16 straight defeats.

    From the outrageous — incidents and accusations leading to ex-coach Urban Meyer’s firing — to an out-break — landing 27 players on the reserve/COVID-19 list by Thursday — the Jags have been besieged by more problems off the field than on it.

    Which is saying something for a team that’s trailed in every contest, has had its number-one overall draft pick Trevor Lawrence throw just one touchdown pass in the past nine games and hasn’t scored more than 21 points in all but one contest.

    Nonetheless, it was a win over Miami, 23-20, in London. And the other victory? A 9-6 decision over Buffalo. Two wins over AFC East teams currently positioned to be playoff qualifiers.

    Last week, however, the Jaguars lost to a third AFC East opponent, the Jets, who rushed for 273 yards in a 26-21 final. Quarterback Zach Wilson gained 91 of them, including 52 on a touchdown run. Meanwhile, rookie back Michael Carter added 118 yards on the ground.

  • Dec 26, 2021; East Rutherford, New Jersey, USA; Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Trevor Lawrence (16) signals to teammates against the New York Jets during the first half at MetLife Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

    Meanwhile, the Jaguars lost their prime running back James Robinson to a torn Achilles. After totaling more than 2,400 yards from scrimmage in his two NFL seasons, Robinson’s absence leaves Dare Ogunbowale (23 carries for 71 yards this year) as Jacksonville’s lead back.

    At receiver, veteran Marvin Jones Jr. has a team-high 64 catches but is averaging a career-low 10.9 yards per reception. As a Lion in 2017, he led the NFL with an 18.0 average. Jones has also gone nine games without a touchdown catch. He had nine TD receptions in three of his last four seasons with Detroit.

    Still, Jones’ three scores are three more than his team’s second-leading receiver Laviska Shenault, whose 56 receptions average 9.7 yards. Shenault hasn’t scored since he caught two touchdown passes at Indianapolis on Jan. 3, 2021.

    No Jacksonville unit was impacted more in the past week by COVID-19 than its offensive line. The toll on the position group prompted one reporter to ask interim head coach Darrell Bevell if he’d consider sitting Lawrence rather than expose him behind a patchwork line. Bevell said no, he wouldn’t.

    As of Saturday, three starters, right guard Ben Bartch, center Brandon Linder and left tackle Cam Robin-son remained on the reserve list. The Jags did receive some relief when left guard Andrew Norwell was activated and journeyman tackle D.J. Fluker was elevated from the practice squad on Saturday.

    Jacksonville’s defense also got good news at the end of the week. Talented Josh Allen (the team’s 2019 first-rounder and current sack leader), veteran linebacker Myles Jack (he of the critical fumble return blown dead in the 2017 AFC Championship) and ex-Pat Malcom Brown (who now doubles as part-time fullback) were all activated off the COVID-19 list.

  • Better To Give (Not)

    Nov 28, 2021; Jacksonville, Florida, USA; Jacksonville Jaguars linebacker Josh Allen (41) looks at the quarterback during the first half against the Atlanta Falcons at TIAA Bank Field. Mandatory Credit: Matt Pendleton-USA TODAY Sports

    The Jags own the worst turnover differential in the NFL at minus-19. Of late at least, the huge give-and-take discrepancy mainly lies with Jacksonville’s defense.

    Overall, the Jaguars have failed to force a turnover in 10 of 15 games. They have a league-low seven takeaways, including six interceptions.

    After Lawrence was picked off seven times in his first three starts, he’s been intercepted seven times in his last 12 games, including four in Week 14 at Tennessee.

  • Isn’t That Special (Not)

    ORCHARD PARK, NEW YORK - DECEMBER 06: Nick Folk #6 of the New England Patriots celebrates his successful field goal with teammate Jake Bailey #7 in the fourth quarter of the game at Highmark Stadium on December 06, 2021 in Orchard Park, New York. (Photo by Timothy T Ludwig/Getty Images)

    ORCHARD PARK, NEW YORK – DECEMBER 06: Nick Folk #6 of the New England Patriots celebrates his successful field goal with teammate Jake Bailey #7 in the fourth quarter of the game at Highmark Stadium on December 06, 2021 in Orchard Park, New York. (Photo by Timothy T Ludwig/Getty Images)

    With apologies to Dana Carvey, a.k.a. ‘Enid Strict,’ a.k.a ‘The Church Lady,’ too much about the various kicking units of both the Patriots and Jaguars hasn’t been special at all this season.

    They’ve had their bright spots, sure.

    Namely, Nick Folk delivering a career-best and league-high 34 field goals for New England, including five from 50-plus yards to tie the single-season team record set by Stephen Gostkowski in 2013.

    Or, Jamal Agnew, who scored on a 109-yard return of a missed field goal try vs. Arizona and 102-yard kickoff return vs. Denver before his campaign was cut short by a hip injury.

    And, as always, there’s the Patriots’ Matthew Slater, a Pro Bowler for a record 10th time.

    But both teams surrendered touchdowns to Indianapolis on blocked punts — each scored by E.J. Speed. Meanwhile, the Jaguars have allowed three kickoff returns for touchdowns, including each of the past two weeks.

    Houston’s Tremon Smith ran one back 98 yards in Week 15, before ex-Pat Braxton Berrios sprinted 102 yards up the right-side numbers last Sunday for the Jets at MetLife Stadium. Jacksonville also gave up a 44-yard TD return by Seattle’s Travis Homer on a failed on-sides try in Week 8.

    At the same time, in addition to having three of his punts blocked, the Pats’ Jake Bailey’s experienced a drop-off in net punting. He’s gone from a league-high 47.6 net average as an All-Pro in 2o2o to 39.6 aver-age (18th) in 2021.

    Furthermore, after Bailey’s punts resulted in just 12 returns for 71 yards a year ago, this season’s opponents have 15 returns for 135 yards. That’s an increase from 5.9 to 9.0 yards a return.