NFL Nation: Cardinals-Patriots
|AP Photo/Winslow Townson|
|Neither the snow nor the Cardinals could hold Matt Cassel and the rest of the New England Patriots back as they cruised to their 10th win, 47-7 over Arizona.|
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.
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."
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
The Cardinals' late-season fade is tarnishing their accomplishments and reviving questions the team had seemingly answered.
- Can the Cardinals compete against good teams? They could during a 27-23 road defeat to the Panthers, but that was in October. They have allowed an average of 41.8 points in losses to the Giants, Eagles, Vikings and Patriots over the last five weeks.
- Is the Cardinals' style of offense sustainable? Only under ideal conditions. The good defenses, unconcerned about an Arizona running game that doesn't exist, have succeeded in pressuring and punishing Kurt Warner. The Patriots continued the trend in the worst way -- up the middle. Warner never had a chance.
- Does Arizona have enough mental toughness? The team hasn't shown much since clinching the NFC West title. Coach Ken Whisenhunt thought he saw it when the Cardinals bounced back from consecutive road defeats to beat the Bills and Cowboys. He has pointed to specific examples as evidence more recently, but getting blown out repeatedly has made the case a lot tougher to advocate.
- Is Warner the right quarterback for the long term? The question sounds ridiculous on the surface. After all, Warner has put up MVP-caliber numbers most of the season. But if the offense in its current pass-happy form proves unsustainable, can the Cardinals be sure Warner would flourish in a more conventional attack?
- Are the Cardinals still tough at home? An overtime victory over the Cowboys in Week 6 seemed to validate Arizona's home-field advantage. But the home-field edge in Arizona is a tenuous one. We've seen opposing teams' fans fill large portions of University of Phoenix Stadium. And after losing two in a row at home, the Cardinals appear vulnerable. If they lose their regular-season finale to Seattle, a first-round playoff defeat would leave the Cardinals with a four-game home losing streak to end the season.
- Is Tim Hightower the answer at running back? The Cardinals thought so when they benched Edgerrin James for the promising rookie. But the team hasn't run the ball frequently enough to find out if Hightower can carry the load. And when Hightower fumbled deep in Cardinals territory Sunday, James replaced him.
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The New England Patriots aren't going away.
In fact, they're looming more than they have all season.
The Patriots went into Sunday the only team among the AFC East-leading threesome not in control of their own destiny, but they remain very much a factor after walloping the Arizona Cardinals 47-7 in the snow globe that was Gillette Stadium.
The Patriots are 10-5 and play the Buffalo Bills in next week's season finale. While the Patriots could win 11 games and not make the playoffs, the Cardinals are 8-7 and have ensured their spot by clinching the harmless NFC West.
The Patriots could become the first 11-win club to miss the postseason since the NFL adopted its current format in 1990 if the Baltimore Ravens beat the Jacksonville Jaguars as expected next week to finish 11-5 and both the Jets and Dolphins win today.
The Ravens hold the tiebreaker and would take the second wild-card berth. The Indianapolis Colts earned the first wild-card entry.
Cassel's phenomenal season continued. He completed 20 of 36 passes for 345 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
Kurt Warner has repeatedly lamented the difficulties associated with throwing the ball too frequently. He went further following the Week 15 defeat to Minnesota by suggesting the Cardinals lost because they failed to hold up at the line of scrimmage -- on both sides of the ball.
Warner might need the ground game even more against the Patriots. Wintry weather could make throwing the ball more difficult. The Cardinals would have another reason to tighten their formations if Pro Bowl receiver Anquan Boldin sits out to rest a shoulder injury.
The Cardinals' frustration -- evident in comments from Warner, strong safety Adrian Wilson and others after the Minnesota game -- will grow if the Patriots blow them out at Gillette Stadium. Coach Ken Whisenhunt keeps talking about opportunities to demonstrate progress against playoff-tested teams. Beating one of those teams has proven elusive.
Mike Holmgren's final home game as Seahawks coach should be memorable. Light snow and winds projected to exceed 23 miles per hour could turn Qwest Field into a winter wonderland.
The Seahawks have played hard for Holmgren down the stretch and that should continue against the Jets. An inspired performance from Seattle, backed by an emotional home crowd, should give the Seahawks a chance.
Brett Favre and the Jets have struggled in West Coast defeats against San Diego, Oakland and San Francisco.
The 49ers have won two of their last three games against the Rams at the Edward Jones Dome.
Shaun Hill's steady play at quarterback gives San Francisco an excellent chance at making it three times in four seasons. When the teams played in Week 11, the 49ers scored touchdowns on all five red zone possessions.
The emotional edge belongs to the 49ers as well. Rams fans figure to save their loudest cheers for 49ers receiver Isaac Bruce. The 49ers are also playing better on defense. Nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin should have the advantage against the Rams' interior line.
In short, nothing about how these teams are playing would appear to favor the Rams.
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