Patriots Can’t Afford to Let Playoff Bye Slip Away
By Karen Guregian
FOXBORO -- The Philadelphia Eagles did the New England Patriots a huge favor last week. The defending Super Bowl champs knocked off the Texans, allowing the Pats to reclaim the second seed.
If the Patriots hold serve Sunday against the AFC East’s cellar-dwelling Jets, they’ll retain their position and earn a first-round bye and home field for the divisional round.
So the pregame speech is pretty simple for Bill Belichick’s team. The mission can be summed up in three words: Don’t blow it!
Do not toss the gift away. Do not lose with a stinker against the Jets to close out the regular season before heading into the playoffs, with the penalty a date on wild-card weekend.
The Patriots, who beat Buffalo last week to break a two-game losing skid, just need to take care of business and move on. Given how Tom Brady looked against the Bills, given how old this team has looked at different times this season (they’re the fourth oldest team age-wise in the NFL as it is), they really need the bye week.
Now that they have the No. 2 seed in their back pocket, losing to the Jets really isn’t an option.
If they let 4-11 Gang Green derail them, they’ll get what they deserve -- an earlier exit in the playoffs than planned. They just don’t function the same without the bye. Few teams do. The shorter the path to the Super Bowl, the better it’s always been.
As for the business at hand, the Jets haven’t beaten the Pats at Gillette in eight years, and that victory came during the postseason.
Many of the players talked about the upcoming game like it was the postseason already. In other words, they get the drift. They understand the significance of this game.
“For us, it’s a playoff game,” said safety and defensive captain Patrick Chung. “We just worry about what we can control. Win our game. If it works out . . . we did our job. It’s really a playoff game for us to get that bye week. It’ll be a good opportunity for us to go get that.”
Running back James White agreed.
“We treat this game like a playoff game because that’s pretty much what it is. It’s going to be a tough game, a tough division game,” said White. “It’s always tough when we play these guys, so they’re going to come out and give their best shot and we’ve got to do the same.”
The Patriots won the first go-round at MetLife Stadium Week 12 (27-13), but the Jets had a different quarterback then. Veteran Josh McCown was filling in for rookie Sam Darnold, but the latter will be in the house Sunday.
He’s played extremely well since his return three games ago. His primary group of playmakers include wide receiver Robby Anderson, rookie tight end Chris Herndon and running back Elijah McGuire.
The Jets, however, do have an extensive injury list at receiver with Quincy Enunwa (ankle) and Jermaine Kearse (Achilles tendon) both battling health problems.
There’s no expectation for the Jets to put it on cruise control with it being Week 17. They might not necessarily be playing for head coach Todd Bowles, who is on the hot seat after another losing season, but the Patriots are still expecting to get their best effort.
“They have a lot of guys banged up, but their running backs are good, their receiving corps has been carrying the load a little bit. So they have a lot of injuries, but those guys still play hard regardless,” said Chung. “They’re going to play hard, 60 minutes. They’re going to bring their ‘A’ game. It’s still going to be a good game regardless of injuries and whatever everyone might say. If we go out there and mess around, they’re going to whoop on us. We have to go out there ready to go.”
Belichick wasn’t making any promises or guarantees, except to say his team knows the stakes and would try its hardest to get the job done. He was matter of fact.
“We’re just going to do the best we can to go out and play as well as we can against the Jets. That’s all we can do,” he said. “So, whatever happens after that, happens. Can’t control it. We can control how we play this week and do the best we can.”
The players were a little more emphatic, saying all the right things about the game. They just have to produce on the field, cast aside the pesky Jets, and spend next week as they typically do -- with a bye.
“We’re just focused on winning. This Jets game is a big one for us,” said safety Duron Harmon. “It’s a playoff game with playoff implications. We have to do everything we can to make sure we’re ready to go this Sunday, one o’clock, and do everything we can to leave with a win.”
Prediction: Patriots 30, Jets 20