The New England Patriots returned from a two-game trip to Los Angeles after a dominant win over the Chargers and an equally woeful loss to the Rams. The same week that Tom Brady said he never plans on returning to the cold of the Northeast, in all likelihood, the Patriots won’t be returning to the playoffs this year either. Sitting at third in the AFC with a record of 6-7, the Patriots are on the outside of the playoff picture looking in. However, this doesn’t mean there isn’t anything for the Patriots to be playing for in their final three matchups. 

The Buffalo Bills clinched the AFC East for the first time in 25 years in their win over the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday Night Football. The Patriots’ streak of 11 straight divisional titles has officially been snapped. It was a good run. In fact, it was the greatest stretch of dominance the NFL has ever seen. But all good things must come to an end.  

Most Patriots fans knew it was over somewhere deep down inside when Tom Brady left for Tampa Bay. But hope was renewed in Dunkin’ Donuts and Cumberland Farms around New England when former MVP Cam Newton signed with the Patriots. Surely Bill Belichick could lift Newton to his former grandeur. Some early victories and narrow losses lead many to hope this wouldn’t be a lost season.  

Those dreams have been dashed on the rocks of reality. Close losses count just the same as blowouts in the NFL and the Patriots have had their share of both. Newton simply isn’t the player he once was. His mechanics are inconsistent, and his accuracy is a far cry from the clinical precision of Brady’s 20-year tenure. This Patriots team who had been gutted by opt-outs and injuries now shambles into the remaining three weeks of the season with little to gain. 

The Patriots are now not good enough to make the playoffs nor bad enough to likely find a franchise quarterback at the top of the draft. The Patriots have a small percent chance of making the playoffs and currently occupy the 16th pick for April’s NFL Draft. If and when that playoff percentage falls to zero, the Patriots will be left to play spoiler for their AFC East rivals.  

So often the Bills, Jets, or Dolphins with no playoff hopes of their own took a swing at New England in hopes of knocking them down a seed or two in the AFC standings. Now the roles have been reversed. The Patriots will play the Dolphins then the Bills and then the Jets. Each of these games presents an opportunity to hinder a divisional foe.  

First, the Dolphins. Miami is coming off a loss to the Chiefs and holds the last wild card spot in the AFC at 8-5. The Patriots can try and sink the Dolphins’ playoff hopes with a win next week and some help from the Raiders and Bills who the Dolphins will play in weeks 16 and 17.  

Miami seemed to always get a surprise win late in the season against the Patriots when they needed one. It will be interesting to see if Belichick can be just as good a spoiler as he is a winner. If things go exactly right, this game is also critical for New England as it will give them a 2-0 advantage over Miami if the last playoff spot comes down to a tiebreaker.  

In Week 16 the Bills come to Foxborough. Fresh off a win Sunday night against the Steelers the Bills are the division champs and are on the cusp of the AFC’s elite. The Patriots took the Bills down to the wire earlier this year with only a Newton fumble in the red zone giving Buffalo the 24-21 victory. If the Patriots can find a way to win against Josh Allena and company, they will guarantee the Bills playing on wild card weekend and missing out on the lone bye in the AFC.  

Finally, the Jets. New York is striving not for postseason glory but draft night splendor. The Jets are currently 0-13. A tough year on the field but the No. 1 draft pick is theirs to lose. A gold medal for the race of losers is Trevor Lawrence. The most highly touted draft prospect in years is a beacon of hope to the perennial bottom dwellers of the AFC East.  

The Jets are not alone in their pursuit of Lawrence. The Jaguars are 1-12 and waiting to pounce should the Jets crash into a win. The Patriots may be that win. It’s hard to imagine Bill Belichick intentionally throwing a game, but if there is one franchise in the NFL that could make him do it, it’s the Jets. Should the Pats be the final hurdle between the Jets and a franchise quarterback, a loss to prevent the Jets from achieving 0-16 may be worth the price of pride. 

Photo courtesy of Elise Amendola