Thursday, November 12, 2009
Updated: November 13, 7:28 AM ET
Patriots in solid position
By Mike Reiss
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- If the current NFL season is compared to a horse race, the Patriots find themselves in a comfortable spot halfway to the finish line -- close enough to the rail, with room to make a move.
The first half of the NFL race is all about positioning. The No. 1 goal is to avoid tripping out of the starting gate and falling so far behind the leader that you're eliminated from contention, which is essentially what has happened to the Tennessee Titans, who were last year's top AFC seed but lost their first six games this season.
So what can Patriots followers take from the first half of the race?
Mainly this: The leader remains in striking distance and the opportunity still exists for the Patriots, at 6-2, to make the same type of decisive move down the homestretch they have in past championship seasons.
That sums up the first half of a season that included wins over the Bills, Falcons, Ravens, Titans, Buccaneers and Dolphins, and losses to the Jets and Broncos. Those teams have a combined record of 28-36.
Looking at the second half of the schedule, the current combined record of opponents is 38-27. A tougher road is ahead, with five road games and just three at home.
The back half starts with the biggest game of the Patriots' season, and as ESPN analyst Tedy Bruschi correctly points out, for all its hype it isn't a must win for either the Patriots or Colts because both teams are comfortably atop their respective divisions. Instead, it's more a statement maker.
"We always know Indianapolis is going to be there at the end," quarterback Tom Brady said of the AFC's lone undefeated team (8-0). "I think the great thing about playing the Colts is that you really see where you are as a team."
While it is significant that a win would keep the Patriots in the hunt for the No. 1 seed in the AFC (ensuring home-field advantage throughout the playoffs), recent history has proven a first-round bye isn't as valuable as it once was. That is something to keep in mind as the playoff pack starts to take shape in the coming weeks.
The fourth-seeded Cardinals represented the NFC last year, while the second-seeded Steelers emerged from the AFC. Two years ago, the sixth-seeded Giants stormed through the playoffs on their way to the Super Bowl championship. Before that, the third-seeded Colts won the title, and the sixth-seeded Steelers were crowned at the end of the 2005 season.
Still, every team (naturally) shoots for the top seed and Brady acknowledged that if the Patriots don't win Sunday, they are unlikely to catch the Colts for No. 1 billing.
One thing the Patriots have been able to count upon in the past eight years of Bill Belichick's tenure is improvement in the second half of the season. Since 2001 (including playoffs), they are 72-17 after Nov. 1, 52-10 after Thanksgiving and 23-4 in games played after Christmas.
If that is to continue, the Patriots will have earned it because a challenging slate of games is ahead.
To their credit, the Patriots have given themselves some margin for error should things get dicey in the second half, something they didn't do last season. So as all teams assess their position at the halfway point of the race, the Patriots must like the view, their AFC East foes farther back in the distance.
Sometimes the Patriots looked dominating as Brady continued to find his way through the first eight games; at other times they were shaky, issues like red zone offense threatening to keep them from their ultimate goal of crossing the finish line first.
But for now, in the big picture, the Patriots have to feel good about their spot on the track.
Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPN Boston. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.