After their 12-0 blanking of the Miami Dolphins on Sunday, the New England Patriots climbed to the top of the AFC East and claimed the top spot in the all important race for home field advantage in the playoffs.
With Kansas City's loss in Denver on Sunday, the Patriots and Chiefs are tied with an 11-2 record. The Patriots - based on the assumption that they will win their last three AFC games - would win the tie-breaker against the Chiefs based on conference records. The Chiefs are done with conference play as they set a mark of 10-2. The Patriots stand 8-1 and it they win out would edge the Chiefs with an 11-1 mark.
The Patriots control their own destiny and it's hard to imagine a Bill Belichick team folding down the stretch. The Patriots have won nine straight games, matching the Chiefs streak to open the season. But can they win three more games in a row? That would give them a 12-game winning streak going into the playoffs.
New England's quest won't be easy. This weekend, they face the suddenly surging Jacksonville Jaguars. Veteran running back Fred Taylor has been playing like a rookie again as the Jaguars have won two straight games. Taylor will receive a heavy diet of carries this weekend in an effort to slow down the Patriots defense. Leftwich has shown apt ability in getting the ball downfield, but the only way the Jaguars can win against the Patriots on Sunday is if both Leftwich and Taylor have stellar games.
The following Saturday, the Patriots must go back on the road for a showdown with AFC East rival New York. Last season, the Jets knocked the Patriots out of the playoffs but that won't happen this year as New England is already assured a playoff spot. Still, the Jets, after beating the Titans at home two weeks ago, are very difficult to beat at home. Chad Pennington is back in the saddle and with little to play for in 2003, the Jets would like nothing more than to derail the Patriots home field quest.
The Buffalo Bills travel to New England to close out the 2003 campaign. This game could determine a playoff spot for the Bills, who have an outside chance at gaining the sixth and final spot. The Bills trounced the Patriots 31-0 in week #1.
This game will mark the return of safety Lawyer Milloy. Milloy was cast off the Patriots before the season started and he would like nothing more than to put another licking on his former team. He still has bitterness towards the Patriots, and there is no doubt he'd rather be playing for the Patriots in January than sitting home for the playoffs.
Thus, the road is not easy.
Subjectively in fact, the Patriots success this year has been amazing. For a team that does not generally score many points and has taken advantage of making just enough plays in some very low scoring games, the Patriots have to feel fortunate to be in the drivers' seat for home field advantage.
What's even more amazing is the team's offensive success despite not having a featured running back. Tom Brady is seasoned, confident and has an amazing ability to make play after play despite weather conditions or game situations. The man has won a Super Bowl and he has the experience to get the Patriots out of any tough situation.
The Patriots defense has some holes, especially in the secondary, but the defensive line can bring some heat and the linebackers are very aggressive. The next three weeks the Patriots will be facing teams that can throw the ball downfield and have some ability to run the ball. Leftwich, Pennington and Drew Bledsoe are all capable of throwing for over 300 yards on this defense.
The other critical element to the Patriots success down the stretch will be their ability to score more points than in recent weeks. The Patriots have a pair of 12-0 wins, and a 9-3 win, at Gillette Stadium. They'll need to score more points the rest of the season and in the playoffs if they want to advance to the Super Bowl. Every team they could face in the post season has the ability to put up 30 or more points.
The Colts showed they could score on the Patriots. The Titans, Broncos, Chiefs and Ravens have more offensive firepower both on the ground and in the air than New England.
This is not to discredit the Patriots success this year. Instead, it's clear that New England must score a lot of points the next three weeks and continue that trend into the playoffs.
Even with the cold temperatures in New England and the possibility of snow, those elements might not be enough to give the Patriots a true home field advantage. In fact, home field in today's NFL is not necessarily a positive. Outside of not having to travel, sleeping in your own bed and playing in front of your home fans, the advantage is really minimal.
The Patriots are a lock, with one more win, to gain at least the second seed in the playoffs based on their road victory over the Colts two weeks ago. The Chiefs must win all three of their games to clinch the second spot if the Colts run the table.
This weekend all three teams should be a lock for victories. The Patriots should beat the Jaguars, the Colts host the Falcons and they should win and the Chiefs play the Lions at home.
But if last weekend was Super Sunday with so many divisional games, the following week could determine home field advantage.
The Patriots travel to New York next Saturday and earlier in the day the Chiefs travel to Minnesota to face the Vikings. On Sunday, the Colts host the surging Denver Broncos.
It's likely that weekend will determine the top three seeds. The Ravens are a lock for the fourth seed as they can't catch any of the other division winners.
The next three weeks the Patriots have to play their best football. They need to find a running game and find a way to score more points. If they can't they could drop from the #1 seed to the third seed if they lose two out of their next three games.
They need to keep the pressure on the Chiefs and Colts. The Patriots are 7-0 against winning teams this year but they won't face another winning team until the playoffs. The next three games will be the most challenging series of games the Patriots will play all season long.
How they handle the Jaguars, Jets and Bills the next three weeks will determine if they can go into the playoffs with a 12 game winning streak and beaming with confidence.
If it's one thing the NFL has taught us this year is that no one can play perfect ball week after week. Teams like the Bears, Lions, Jaguars and Jets have all beat up on sure fire playoff teams with ease.
Now's not the time for the Patriots to be complacent, cocky or feeling too comfortable with their standings in the AFC. Being perfect for nine straight weeks does not mean you will be perfect for the tenth, eleventh or twelfth week.