By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) -- The New England Patriots currently sit at 10-2. They're a certainty to make the playoffs, obviously. Their chances of earning a first-round playoff bye are extremely high, as are their chances of winning an 11th straight AFC East crown.
From a general perspective, things are hunky-dory for Bill Belichick's squad as they enter the final quarter of the 2019 NFL season.
Yet as everybody knows, the "general perspective" does not often register in New England, where the expectations are always and forever higher than any other NFL city in the country. Making the Super Bowl essentially every other year -- and winning two-thirds of them -- over the course of two decades will have that effect.
And so, in looking at the AFC playoff race, it's quite clear that despite winning more than 83 percent of their games, the Patriots have used up all of their margin for error. With four weeks remaining in the season, even one more slip-up will likely assure that they will kick away their chance at earning the No. 1 seed in the AFC, and the home-field advantage that comes with it. While yes, the team overcame a postseason road trip to Kansas City last year, they did so in a wild back-and-forth game where the last team to possess the football was going to win, and they did it in a place where they had not lost a regular-season game in grisly fashion earlier in the season. If the Patriots do have to travel to Baltimore this coming January, they'll be returning to a place where they were soundly defeated in early November.
Now, nobody ought to go full Bart Scott and suggest that traversing that road to the Super Bowl would be impossible for the Patriots. But the climb would nonetheless be much steeper if it involved a trip to Charm City.
All of which brings us to the point of this discussion: If the Patriots are to finish the season with a 14-2 record, thus giving them a chance to recapture the No. 1 seed if Baltimore drops one more game, then they're going to need their defense to carry them there.
That may seem obvious, given the state of Tom Brady's offense, but it's worth reiterating. If the Patriots want to be THE PATRIOTS, then the defense is going to have to live up to its reputation, and it's going to have to earn that all-time status that they are quite close to achieving.
In case you haven't been following, the unit coached by two Belichicks and a Mayo (with a sprinkling of Bielema, Covington and Pellegrino) has been flirting with history throughout this season. Though stodgy olds have been reluctant and/or unwilling to so much as mention the 2019 Patriots in the same breath as the '85 Bears or 2000 Ravens, the fact is that this year's Patriots team has performed at a level worthy of that company.
But -- there's always a "but" -- it will matter very little if the defense can't close this season to its capabilities.
In three of their final four tests, it shouldn't be a problem. A trip to Cincinnati to face the second-worst scoring offense and the fourth-worst offense in terms of efficiency should not be a problem. Likewise, a home date against Josh Allen (who threw three picks at home vs. New England this year, and who completed under 50 percent of his passes in Foxboro last year while throwing one touchdown and two picks) shouldn't be overly difficult. Closing out the season at home against Dolphins players who will all have one leg already in their bathing suits in Cabo should also be a cinch.
Really, the make-or-break, prove-it moment for the defense will come this Sunday, when Andy Reid, Patrick Mahomes, Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce and LeSean McCoy visit Gillette Stadium in a clash of last year's two best teams in the AFC.
Despite losing Patrick Mahomes for two-and-a-half games, the Chiefs rank fourth in total offense, second in yards per play, and third in points per game. They have the third-best third-down defense in the NFL, and they have the best interception rate and fourth-best sack rate in the league. They're not dominant in every area -- in fact, they're below average in the red zone, and they rank in the bottom third in rushing offense -- but they remain a formidable offense.
Mahomes may not be in line to win a second straight MVP, but with 20 touchdowns and just two interceptions, he ranks fifth in the league in passer rating, and he's thrown five touchdowns and one interception since returning from his knee injury. He remains just as dangerous as he was a year ago, when he and the Chiefs' offense put up 40 points in Foxboro, albeit in a losing effort.
Suffice it to say, if the Chiefs put 40 points on the board this week, they may end up winning by 20 -- at least.
That's where the challenge lies for the defense. Though they're surely worn down after having the flu tear through the locker room last week, which came after facing teams coming off byes for four straight games, they're going to need to play their best game of the season this week against Kansas City. If they can pull it off, they will completely rewrite the narrative and completely shift the mood surrounding the team down the final stretch of the season.
In the midst of this absurd run of Super Bowl trips almost every year came the 2015 season. That year, the Patriots were 10-0 and looked to be well on their way to San Francisco for Super Bowl 50. But beginning in late November, things began to unravel. Chris Harper muffed a punt, they sleepwalked through a game against a bad Eagles team in Foxboro, they kicked off in overtime against the Jets and got burned, and they entered Miami with one of the worst game plans of the entire Belichick era. They went 2-4 down the stretch, kicked away home-field advantage, and lost the AFC Championship Game on the road in Denver by two measly points.
Had that game been played in Foxboro, where a varied snap count might have prevented the Broncos from registering 17 hits and four sacks on Brady, there's a very real chance that the Patriots would have been vying for a second straight Super Bowl.
As it stands now, the Patriots will once again be on the road if they are able to reach the conference championship. Yet they can still keep themselves in position to capitalize if Baltimore loses at Buffalo this week, at Cleveland in Week 16, or at home in Week 17 against the Steelers. (It feels safe to pencil in a Week 15 home date against the Jets as a win for Baltimore.)
And while Brady and his merry band of receivers will be doing their best for a better output than their 18.4 points per game over the past five games, it would be unrealistic to expect a complete awakening, given the personnel and the injuries and the struggles that have really existed since Week 3 of the season. Early in the year, touchdowns and short fields created by turnovers and blocked punts helped mask a lot of the Patriots' offensive shortcomings. Now would be the time for those opportunistic plays to return.
By any measure, the defense of the 2019 Patriots belongs in the conversation with some of the greatest defenses in the history of the NFL. Barring a disaster, they're in line to become just the eighth team to ever allow fewer than 200 points in a 16-game season. Whether the historians like it or not, this year's Patriots defense is forcing their way into the most elite and exclusive group.
The Patriots have faced a top-10 scoring offense three times this season. With some help from an unrelenting downpour, they held the Cowboys to just nine points, well below their season average of 25.8 points per game. In Baltimore, though, the Ravens scored 37 (scoring once on defense), besting their average of 33.8 points per game. In Houston, the Texans scored 28, a tick above their season average of 24.4 points per game.
This year, in true road games (that is, excluding their game in Mexico City), the Chiefs are averaging 32.8 points and 439 yards of offense per game.
The challenge now for New England's defense will be to cut both of those numbers in half. That's likely the only route to a much-needed victory for the Patriots.
Doing that is, quite obviously, no easy feat. But this defense has proven to be suffocating, stifling, and overpowering countless times this season, to the point where they've been described as historic. Now comes the opportunity to actually make that matter.
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