Loss To Colts Changes Playoff Landscape

The 35-34 loss to the Colts changes everything in the playoff picture, or does it? One thing is certain, Patriots fans can probably forget about another AFC Championship game in Foxboro.

Most of the talk this week will revolve around Bill Belichick's gutsy decision to attempt a fourth-down conversion deep inside his own territory late in Sunday's loss to Indianapolis. The more pertinent topic might be what this means in the AFC playoff race.

The Patriots led by 17 points in the fourth quarter before coughing up the lead in a stunning 35-34 loss, which leaves them three games behind the Colts in the race for the No. 1 seed with only six games to go. Had they won, the Patriots would've been a game back and they would've owned the tie-breaker.

Obviously, Sunday's loss changes everything, and the Patriots are faced with the possibility of having to travel in the postseason if they're fortunate enough to get that far in the playoffs.

Luckily for them, the AFC East appears mediocre, which means they'll probably win the division barring any unforeseen meltdown. At 6-3, they still lead the Dolphins and Jets by two games in the race for first place.

The bigger picture is more cloudy.

Given a snapshot of today's playoff picture, the Patriots could have a hard time grabbing the No. 2 seed in the AFC considering Indianapolis is 9-0, Cincinnati is 7-2 and Denver is 6-3 with the tie-breaker advantage since it beat New England head-to-head this year.

What that means is the Patriots will likely open the playoffs on wild-card weekend with a home game before they are forced to travel for potential divisional and conference championship matchups. This presents a major problem considering they're only 1-3 on the road this year with that one road win coming at Wembley Stadium in London against the then-winless Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Can the Patriots win back-to-back road games in the playoffs to get back to the Super Bowl? Right now, it seems doubtful based on their most recent history away from Gillette Stadium. That's what made Sunday's game so important. Until the Patriots prove they can beat a decent team on the road, the doubters will suggest otherwise.

Belichick's curious coaching decision will earn most of the attention this week, but the Patriots' impending playoff future is the far more important topic.

Trying To Tin The Game
The game turned Sunday when the Patriots went for the conversion on fourth-and-2 from their own 28-yard line with 2:08 remaining. The Colts held their ground and scored on the ensuing drive for a dramatic win. Bill Belichick defended his decision afterward.

"We tried to win the game on that play," Belichick said.

The Patriots would've had the first down on that ill-fated play, but Kevin Faulk -- the intended receiver -- bobbled the ball as he crossed the first-down marker and didn't gain possession until he was behind the line.

The ensuing spot gave the Colts possession, leading to their eventual game-winning touchdown. The play sparked debate and Faulk disagreed with the ruling.

"(The referee) had a better angle than me," Faulk said of the official. "I thought I caught it. I didn't feel a bobble."

Big Returns
WR Wes Welker's 69-yard punt return in the third quarter was his longest punt return as a Patriot, eclipsing his 44-yard return against Denver last year.

Welker's play was also the second-longest punt return of his career, trailing only his 71-yard return against New England five years while he was a member of the Miami Dolphins.

The last punt return of that magnitude for the Patriots came back in 2001 when Troy Brown scored on an 85-yard return against Cleveland.

PLAYER NOTES
--WR Sam Aiken left Sunday's game with a hip injury and did not return. His status will be updated during the week and he could be a game-time decision for Sunday's game against the Jets.
--CB Leigh Bodden drew an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty following an interception Sunday because he celebrated too much by posing for a fake photograph, taken by teammate Patrick Chung.
--LB Jerod Mayo registered his first career sack Sunday when he dropped Peyton Manning for an 11-yard loss during the second quarter.
--WR Randy Moss became the seventh player in NFL history to reach 14,000 receiving yards. He entered the game needing 87 yards and smashed that total in the first half with 133 yards on four catches.
--QB Tom Brady moved into 20th place on the NFL's all-time touchdown list with two touchdowns Sunday, giving him 214 for his career and pushing him past John Brodie.


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