New England once again forced to monitor Patriots’ playoff odds heading into December

BOSTON — And so it goes, for the third straight year, all of New England is left to play with the postseason odds calculators to see what chances the Patriots have of playing beyond the regular season.

The team reached the Super Bowl in four out of five years from 2014-18, winning three championships in that span. That concluded a run of making the AFC Championship Game in eight straight years. Now, they’re at risk of stretching the run of seasons without a playoff win to four.

Life moves quickly in the NFL, and though the Patriots managed to be the one team that managed to override that inevitable reality for quite some time, the difficulty of sustained championship contention has certainly hit Bill Belichick’s team in recent years.

With that in mind, despite the loss on Thanksgiving night in Minnesota, the Patriots’ playoff chances didn’t take too much of a hit in Week 12.

According to FiveThirtyEight’s playoff prediction model, the Patriots’ playoff odds only dropped 6 percent in Week 12.

FiveThirtyEight currently has the Patriots with a 36 percent chance of making the playoffs. As you might imagine, quite a bit hinges on this week’s game against the Bills.

If the Patriots win on Thursday, their playoff odds go up to 57 percent. If they lose, the number drops to 22 percent.

Fortunately for the Patriots, their competitors in the AFC playoff race also have a difficult weekend ahead. The Jets play at Minnesota, and if the Jets lose after a Patriots win, New England’s playoff odds jump up to 60 percent.

But if the Patriots lose while the Jets, Dolphins, Bengals and Chargers all win, then New England’s playoff odds drop to 17 percent. That’s the worst-case scenario.

On the positive perspective, the Patriots can get their playoff chances up to 72 percent if they can simply win their next two games — vs. the Bills on Thursday, then at Arizona on Monday Night Football. 

Of course, picking up the first win of that set will be challenging. The biggest challenge of the year, likely. The Bills’ dominance over the Patriots is well-known, and it coincides with the Patriots’ descent into the NFL’s middle class in recent years.

If you’re looking for another computer’s expectations for the Patriots, you can look at The New York Times’ playoff simulator. That model has the Patriots with a 42 percent chance of making the postseason this year. That’s slightly better than FiveThirtyEight’s model, but it also represents a massive drop from 60 percent heading into last week.

The Patriots can get back up to 58 percent if they beat the Bills, but they’ll drop down to 29 percent if they lose.

But if New England loses to Buffalo before winning both road games in Arizona and Las Vegas, then the playoff odds will be at 53 percent heading into Christmas week.

And interestingly, if the Patriots win those two road games but lose at home to the Bills this week and to the Bengals on Christmas Eve, it will set up a massive game vs. the Dolphins on New Year’s Day. Under that scenario, a Patriots win over Miami would set their playoff odds at just over 50-50. A loss to Miami would drop the Patriots down to just 7 percent.

Clearly, there’s a lot that can still be won or lost for the Patriots. And while Thursday night’s game vs. Buffalo may feel like the defining moment of the season, the reality is that the calculations and machinations of paths to the postseason will continue for at least another couple of weeks, regardless of this week’s outcome.

On the one hand, the Patriots have made some progress in this regard. 

The 2019 Patriots were 10-1 and in line for a No. 1 seed before falling apart in December, going 2-3 in their final five games and being forced to play on Wild Card Weekend. They lost that game, and Tom Brady left New England, officially ushering in this new era.

In the unfortunate 2020 season, the season was essentially over before Thanksgiving. Last year, after a 2-4 start, the playoff odds machines were fired up early. But then, the Patriots rattled off seven straight victories. When they hit their bye week at 9-4, some prognosticators got a little overeager, drawing up scenarios where the Patriots would play Tom Brady and the Buccaneers in the Super Bowl. Instead, the Patriots collapsed down the stretch, going 1-3 and requiring the computers to come back into play. Eventually, they earned themselves a postseason trip to Buffalo, where they lost 47-17.

That was a brutal loss, but it was technically progress from the previous season. 

Whether this year’s team can continue that progress or hit a setback will be determined on the field in the coming month. Considering the difficulty of New England’s schedule — with two games against the 8-3 Bills, plus a game each against the 8-3 Dolphins and 7-4 Bengals — it figures to be a rather steep climb to the postseason. But stranger things have happened, so the intrigue will persist.

What is known for now is that the practice of Patriots fans scoping out Super Bowl sites for hotels, transportation and tickets every year has been replaced by futzing around on some computer data models in late November to see if the Patriots might get to play a road game on Wild Card Weekend. Such is the new way of life for a region adjusting to the harsh realities of the NFL.

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