Sunday, October 4, 2009

A look beyond Baltimore

(Postscript: Or, um, not.)

One quick thought: What if the Patriots lose this week?

Baltimore, of course, is 3-0 and among the elite teams in the NFL. The Patriots certainly qualify as a Super Bowl contender but aren't quite in the same category as the Ravens or the Giants or Saints. Should the Patriots lose today -- as some doomsday prognosticators have predicted -- they'd fall even further behind.

Consider this a pre-emptive strike at the sky-is-falling crowd.

Rather than wins and losses, let's look at net point differential to rank the NFL's teams thus far this season, a stat that tells us how dominant the seven remaining undefeated teams have been in their wins:

New Orleans, plus-64
Baltimore, plus-50
Denver, plus-46
New York Giants, plus-32
Minnesota, plus-31
New York Jets, plus-31
Indianapolis, plus-27

If you know the Patriots' upcoming schedule, you know where we're going with this: A week after playing Baltimore, thus far the second-best team in the NFL, the Patriots travel to Denver to face the unbeaten Broncos -- thus far the third-best team in the NFL.

All but three NFL teams are allowing 16 points per game this season. The Broncos have surrendered just 16 points all season.

The point is that the Patriots very well could be 2-3 by mid-October with columnists and talking heads absolutely in a frenzy over the idea that the Patriots might be slipping out of the playoff hunt.

Stay calm. Don't panic. Don't be fooled.

The Patriots happen to be enduring the toughest part of their schedule first. It doesn't get easy at any point, of course, but the Patriots will remain a safe bet to get to 10 or 11 wins and earn a playoff spot no matter what happens between now and next Sunday. Check out the schedule the rest of the way (with net point differential in parentheses):

Oct. 18, Tennessee (minus-13)
Oct. 25, Tampa Bay in London (minus-50)
Nov. 1, BYE
Nov. 8, Miami (minus-26)

Nov. 15, at Indianapolis (plus-27)
Nov. 22, New York Jets (plus-31)
Nov. 30, at New Orleans (plus-64)

Dec. 6, at Miami (minus-26)
Dec. 13, Carolina (minus-50)
Dec. 20, at Buffalo (minus-8)
Dec. 27, Jacksonville (minus-9)
Jan. 3, at Houston (minus-21)

If the Patriots do nothing but beat the remaining teams with a negative point differential the rest of the season, they'll win nine games and be riding a five-game winning streak when the playoffs begin.

If they can steal any games against teams with positive point differential thus far -- if they can steal a win against the Ravens today, for example, or if they can avenge their loss to the Jets when the two teams meet at Gillette Stadium -- you'll be talking about 10 or 11 wins and maybe even an AFC East title.

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