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Patriots peaking, but playoffs in doubt

12/21/2008

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Graham

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Ten wins ought to be enough to get into the playoffs. Eleven should be automatic.

The New England Patriots are playing the best of any AFC East club and probably will finish the season 11-5, but they aren't in control.

Even if the Patriots beat the Buffalo Bills next Sunday to finish 2008 with 11 victories, a few teams hold a hammer over the defending AFC champs.

"We're rolling the dice each weekend, and we keep hitting them," Patriots cornerback Ellis Hobbs said. "Now we need some other guys to crap out."

The Patriots were dominant Sunday in defeating the shivering Arizona Cardinals 47-7 in snowy Gillette Stadium. Then they finally got some help. The New York Jets came up small in a 13-3 loss to the Seattle Seahawks.

Still, the Miami Dolphins and Baltimore Ravens leave the Patriots helpless to a significant degree.

The Dolphins beat the Kansas City Chiefs and would claim the AFC East crown next week by defeating the Jets in the season finale at the Meadowlands. The Dolphins also would be 11-5, but take precedence over the Patriots because of a better conference record.

The Ravens will clinch the final wild-card berth if they beat the Jacksonville Jaguars. The Ravens also would finish 11-5 but get in because of a tiebreaker.

Not since the 1985 Denver Broncos has a team won 11 games and not qualified for the postseason.

"We just want to try and get 11 wins and see if it is good enough," Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said. "I don't even know all the scenarios yet, but the best we can do in the regular season right now is 11 victories. We are going to work our butt off to try and get that."

The Patriots, meanwhile, clubbed a Cardinals team that is 8-7 but clinched its playoff spot a while ago. The San Diego Chargers can get into the playoffs with an 8-8 record if they beat the Denver Broncos on Sunday.

No complaints were uttered in New England's locker room about the playoff scenarios. Rather than rail for a revamped system, the Patriots pointed a collective finger at themselves for not winning one more game earlier in the season.

"That's why you play 16 games in the regular season, so situations like this won't happen," Hobbs said. "Unfortunately, we weren't taking care of business in the beginning -- or taking care of business enough."

Some tough losses exist on the Patriots' schedule. Jabar Gaffney bungled an apparent touchdown pass that could have helped them beat the Indianapolis Colts. A coin flip might have made the difference in an overtime loss to the Jets. Randy Moss dropped a touchdown pass just before halftime that could have changed the tone of their home loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

"We have no one to be frustrated with but ourselves," Patriots guard Logan Mankins said. "We lost five games. That's all on us. If we wouldn't have lost those, we wouldn't have anything to worry about."

But the Patriots don't have any bad losses on paper. Their five defeats came against teams that have either clinched a playoff berth already or could get in with a victory in the season finale.

Despite being ransacked by myriad injuries, the Patriots are playing better than anybody else in the division.

Yes, the Dolphins are winning at a phenomenal rate, taking four games in a row and eight of their past nine. But the Dolphins have barely beaten many of the NFL's worst teams. They needed a late touchdown drive to beat the Kansas City Chiefs 38-31 on Sunday.

The Patriots have scored 96 points over the past two weeks and have scored at least 47 in three of their past five games, including a 48-28 victory in Dolphin Stadium. They've won three straight road games, including consecutive victories on the West Coast in which they didn't return home in between.

New England has won 11 straight games in December. Two more cool streaks apropos to nothing about the playoff chase: New England has won an NFL-record 15 straight games against nonconference opponents and is 10-0 all-time when it snows in Foxborough.

The Jets, meanwhile, are reeling. They've lost three out of their past four games, all against teams they were favored to beat. Their lone post-Thanksgiving triumph was miraculous. The Bills fumbled while doing a poor job of trying to run out the clock, and the Jets returned it for a touchdown and a most improbable 31-27 victory.

Yet there are the Patriots, still winning, still playing well.

And maybe out of the playoffs.

"You think about when the season starts and how there are so many front-runners, and you think about all those teams that started out so well in the beginning and have fallen off at the end," Hobbs said. "You just have to take it for what it is and just keep playing ball and just hope for the best."