Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Pats need help as playoffs near

The New England Patriots, the walking hospital ward of a team, are halfway through a perfect December, which was recognized as a must-do after the home loss to Pittsburgh, suddenly the NFL's hottest team.

And as the 49-26 thumping of the Oakland Raiders showed, New England is still capable of handing it to a team, including the kind they may have to face come January.

And yet, despite all of that, despite the fact that the Patriots have done nothing but their job since the last day of might not be enough.

Because the Ravens kept winning. And the Dolphins kept winning. And for a stretch, the Jets looked unbeatable.

And those close calls? Those unnecessary roughness calls on final drives, those lost coin tosses, those times spent overwhelmed by a team's throwback scheme? Those actually aren't as forgettable as we tried to convince ourselves when it was happening.

That close loss to Indianapolis? The overtime defeat by the Jets? The fluke loss to Miami? Each time, the thinking was the same. Once we get to the end of the season, it won't matter.

Welcome to the end of the season. And it matters.

The Patriots, Dolphins and Jets have all lost five times. But unlike the Jets, the Patriots lost two of those games in the division. Unlike the Dolphins, the Patriots saved all of their losses for the AFC. So here we are, at the end of the season, where everyone dusts off those tiebreaker rules...and finds out the Patriots don't own any of them.

So the Patriots need to do more than win. They need others to lose.

They need the Ravens to lose this Saturday to the on-again, off-again Cowboys for a wild card. Or they need the Jets to get tripped up by Seattle, or the Dolphins to get toppled by the Chiefs. And if one of those teams should lose, New England needs that team to win when the Jets and Dolphins play each other in the season finale at the Meadowlands.

And of course, above all else, the Patriots need to win. At home against Arizona, on the road against Buffalo. One loss doesn't mathematically nail the coffin, but it makes divine intervention the only other hope.

Hard to imagine an 11-5 team out of the playoffs. But unless other teams get into the Christmas spirit and give the Patriots a few games, that's just what will happen.

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