That didn’t last long. The Patriots missed the AFC playoffs in 2020, but they’re already en route to reclaiming their long-time status as dominant AFC East champions after a mere one-year hiatus.
With their run-heavy, defensive-minded, grinding 14-10 win at Buffalo on Monday night, whether they will take the division title back from Buffalo is no longer the big question: It’s how far the Patriots can go in this surprising stellar season.
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New England (9-4) is atop the conference standings after Week 13, heading into a fortunate late-season bye. New NFL Coach of the Year front runner Bill Belichick has outdone himself with the masterful job he has done this season with rookie first-rounder Mac Jones as his starting quarterback.
Because of that 7-1 conference record — with their only AFC loss coming to the Dolphins in Week 1 — the Patriots will still be the No. 1 seed coming out of Week 14, even if anybody or everybody from the 8-4 division-leading group of the Titans, Ravens or Chiefs wins next Sunday.
The Patriots have a tough Saturday night road game at the Colts in Week 15, but close with the Bills at home, Jaguars at home and Dolphins on the road. Having won seven consecutive games with a near 22-point average margin of victory has flipped them from a 2-4 mess into a familiar Belichickian powerhouse.
The only missing element from Belichick’s best teams — and there are now so many of those — is Tom Brady. They are still winning with strong defense, a good running game, a sense of ideal situational football and the right personnel to respond to elite coaching in all three phases of the game. They’ve also done it by protecting Jones as a caretaker at times and calling upon him to be more of a playmaker at others.
In a 2021 season defined by the slumping young gun-led offenses in the AFC — headlined by Josh Allen’s Bills and Patrick Mahomes’ Chiefs — the Patriots are getting it done with more old-school, physical football that has translated to more consistent winning. The Titans and Ravens have amassed major injuries, while the Chargers and Bengals are still learning how to win as inexperienced playoff-contending teams.
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Given how well the Patriots’ elite pass defense is playing, no one wants to try winning a game passing in the elements vs. Belichick in New England deep into January during the divisional playoffs. Should the Patriots end up at No. 1 — making the Super Bowl 56 path from the AFC go through Foxborough — it’s difficult to feel confident about Allen, Mahomes, Ryan Tannehill or Lamar Jackson winning there. Justin Herbert, like Allen, was thwarted by the Patriots’ defense enough on Halloween, while Joe Burrow would face a tall order facing Belichick’s scheming for the first time in the playoffs.
Jonathan Taylor and the run-heavy Colts, coached by old Eagles Super Bowl nemesis Frank Reich, could be a threat. But the Patriots can make sure they aren’t by further sinking that team’s wild-card return chances on the field in two weeks.
The Patriots have a shot to finish the season with four more wins to get to 13-4, which would guarantee them the lone bye and home-field advantage in the AFC playoffs. Given the Titans, Ravens and Chiefs all have their share of tricky games ahead, 3-1 might do it for the top seed.
MORE: How Bill Belichick rebuilt the Patriots: Mac Jones, Matt Judon, Hunter Henry complete rapid roster overhaul
Some would say New England has zagged well where all the other teams have zigged to stand out from the AFC crowd. But they also made big changes with another team in mind — Brady’s Buccaneers.
The Patriots are winning a lot, but their most impressive performance in 2021 may have come in the 19-17 home loss to Tampa Bay in Week 4. That game seemed to spark some confidence that the Patriots could play and beat anyone in the NFL. Consider their only loss since then was the Cowboys, who beat them in overtime in Week 6.
You can bet Belichick has motivated his team to work toward a potential rematch with Brady’s in Los Angeles on Feb. 13. The Patriots are rolling through the AFC, but are only 2-3 against the NFC. There’s no question the NFC is the better conference in terms of top competition when collecting the Buccaneers, Cowboys, Cardinals, Packers and Rams.
MORE: NFL standings: Updated AFC, NFC playoff picture after Week 13 of 2021 season
One might remember the 2020 Buccaneers started looking like potential Super Bowl champions by rolling through their final four regular-season games after a Week 13 bye. The Patriots are trying to do something similar in 2021 with an extra game on the slate.
The Buccaneers, despite how well the Cardinals and Packers are playing, remain the solid Super Bowl-winning favorites with Brady. The Chiefs have emerged with the best odds from the AFC, but the Patriots have been gaining fast on them. The Patriots would love nothing better than to spoil a Super Bowl rematch and Belichick getting another shot at Brady with much more on the line at the same time.
The Patriots have devised their defense to handle explosive passing games with a strong pass rush, great coverage and versatile depth on every level. They want to face teams, forcing them to get pass-happy. Guess which two teams throw the ball more than any other? The Buccaneers and the Chiefs.
Did the Patriots quickly rebuild their team through aggressive free agency and shrewd drafting with overtaking the Bills again in mind? Yes, sure. But as Belichick is always thinking about the bigger (playoff) picture, he also was building a team to take down a team such as Tampa Bay or Kansas City in a battle of attrition. He just needed some competent complementary QB play to complete the plan, and he has got it from Jones.
Brady seemed destined in 2020 to get his seventh ring away from New England. This one feels like everything is inching toward GOAT vs. GOAT to decide it all.