We keep hearing about the strength of the Baltimore Ravens and the New York Jets, the woes of the Dallas Cowboys and the Minnesota Vikings, the strange silence of the San Francisco 49ers (1-5 and picked to win the NFC West) and Cincinnati’s double-barrelled threat with Chad Ochocinco and Terrell Owens, but nobody outside the greater Boston metropolitan area seems to have noticed that the New England Patriots have quietly assumed a tie for first place in the AFC East Division. According to the NFL standings, Patriots are one of only three teams in the NFL to have only one loss. For some reason, the high profile Patriots have cruised below the radar of most sports analysts and commentators this year — except when they traded Randy Moss to the Minnesota Vikings, and that was all about Moss, Favre, and the Vikings. But could New England be quiet contenders for another Super Bowl ring?
Having lost to the New York Jets in the second week of the schedule didn’t help the Patriots in the NFL power rankings, but the Jets have only lost one game as well. By virtue of that victory, the Jets technically hold first place in their shared division. But the Patriots took on the highly touted Baltimore Ravens last week and came out the winners with an Overtime field goal, raising their stock considerably.
New England, if they can win at least three-quarters of their remaining scheduled games (which would give them at least 11 wins overall), will undoubtedly make the playoffs, given the current move toward mediocrity in the NFL. But getting those wins could be more of a problem than their current record indicates. Why? The quality of teams that they face in the next 11 contests is higher than many teams will face. Beginning in Week 7, they take on the San Diego Chargers, then the Minnesota Vikings, both apparently playing under their supposedly skill level. In Week 10, they play the only other one-loss team, the Pittsburgh Steelers. Then its Indianapolis.
In Weeks 13, 14, and 15, they play the Jets, the surprising Chicago Bears, and the uncertain (but tough) Green Bay Packers.
Although it doesn’t seem that New England has anything to worry about intra-division (besides the Jets), defeating the Miami Dolphins is never a given (although the Buffalo Bills might be). But if they end the season trailing the Jets, they still have to win enough games to pull down a Wild Card. At present, there really doesn’t seem to be any other team in the AFC (besides the aforementioned Jets and Steelers) that are as powerful as the Patriots. NFL Power Rankings place them at #3 nearly across the board (ESPN, CBS, Fox Sports, Fanhouse). But they will want to improve on their 12th overall NFL ranking in Defense and 21st overall ranking in Offense (although Tom Brady sits at #6 in quarterback passing yards) over the next few weeks.
So is a fourth Super Bowl ring waiting on New England? There’s a strong possibility. But at the end of the season, the Patriots will still contend with the New York Jets, regardless of which team ends up on top of the East Division. And although the Jets may have gotten to the playoffs by a strange confluence of events last year, an even better Jets team will get to the playoffs this year. Before it is all over, New England might have to play New York two more times — and that’s just to get to the Super Bowl. And that isn’t even considering the Steelers, the other Division winners, and some dark horse contender that might appear within the next few weeks.
But can they do it? Of course they can. They have a pretty tough schedule ahead, but as long as Bill Belichick puts on headphones on the sidelines in Foxboro, the Patriots will have a shot at the upcoming Super Bowl.
New England 2010 Schedule
1. Cincinnati Bengals Sept. 12, 1:00 p.m.
2. @ New York Jets Sept. 19, 4:15 p.m.
3. Buffalo Bills, Sept. 26, 1:00 p.m.
4. @ Miami Dolphins, Oct. 4, 8:30 p.m.
6. Baltimore Ravens, Oct. 17, 1:00 p.m.
7. @ San Diego Chargers, Oct. 24, 4:15 p.m.
8. Minnesota Vikings, Oct. 31, 4:15 p.m.
9. @ Cleveland Browns, Nov. 7, 1:00 p.m.
10. @ Pittsburgh Steelers, Nov. 14, 8:20 p.m.
11. Indianapolis Colts, Nov. 21, 4:15 p.m.
12. @ Detroit Lions, Nov. 25, 12:30 p.m.
13. New York Jets, Dec. 6, 8:20 p.m.
14. @ Chicago Bears, Dec. 12, 1:00 p.m.
15. Green Bay Packers, Dec. 19, 8:20 p.m.
16. @ Buffalo Bills, Dec. 26, 1:00 p.m.
17. Miami Dolphins, Jan. 2, 1:00 p.m.