Despite Thursday Loss, Pats Still Look Good for Playoffs
by Trevor Whenham - 11/14/2008
After the first half of the New England Patriots' first game it seemed like the story of the year would be The Injury. Though Tom Brady's knee has largely set the tone for the season, the team has probably been better than most people expected they would be. Sure, their loss last night to the Jets puts them in an unfamiliar situation - out of first place in the AFC East. Still, they are sitting at 6-4 and very much in the wild card hunt. Given how the season has gone in the AFC, 3-3 down the stretch may be enough to get them into the playoffs, and 4-2 almost certainly would. So despite how it seemed back in September, then, all is not lost. Let's take a look at where this team is at, and if it has what it takes to stay strong, and of interest to bettors, down the stretch:
Matt Cassel - No player is of bigger interest on this team than Cassel, and no quarterback has likely been under more scrutiny in the league this year. A guy who hadn't started since high school was suddenly handed the reins of the most potent team in the league, and no one expect maybe Cassel's parents was excited about it. Though it looked rough at times, Cassel has done better than could reasonably have been expected. He's in the top half of the league in quarterback rating. He's right behind Eli Manning in that category, and that guy supposedly walks on water these days. He has more TDs (10) than interceptions (7). Ben Roethlisberger can't say that. Most significantly, though, he had one of the best games any quarterback has had all year against the Jets. Sure he lost, but a QB can't influence the outcome of a coin toss. Cassel tossed for 400 yards and three touchdowns. He had to come from behind, and he capped the last drive with an incredibly challenging TD pass on fourth down as time expired. To top it all of, he was the leading rusher in the game, too. If that game didn't give him confidence to build off of down the stretch then nothing will. Cassel is no Tom Brady, but he is far from a liability.
Injuries - This is where things could get sticky for the Pats. They have so far shown a remarkable ability to endure despite suffering serious injuries to key players - Brady, Laurence Maroney, Rodney Harrison, Adalius Thomas - and less severe injuries to many more - LaMont Jordan, Ty Warren, Vince Wilfork, Stephen Neal, and so on. Sooner or later, though, the team is going to suffer one injury too many. The defense may already have shown signs of being overtaxed without Thomas against the Jets. No team in the league more badly needs the rest of their roster to stay healthy down the stretch than the Patriots do.
Schedule - The team needs three or four wins to make the playoffs. The schedule isn't as easy as it could be, but it's not that hard to imagine how that win total could come along. They have road trips to Miami, Seattle, Oakland and Buffalo. The two on the west coast are very winnable, and the two divisional trips are likely to be wide-open affairs. If Buffalo doesn't snap out of their tailspin soon then the last game could be a gimme. The home games are against Pittsburgh and Arizona. They beat Pittsburgh soundly last year, and Roethlisberger isn't going to be healthy by game time, so it's winnable. Arizona is also a team that the Pats could beat, especially if the late December weather is lousy enough to impair the Cards' passing game. The schedule has been very kind to New England so far, and it isn't working against them down the stretch - there are three or four wins there.
Coaching - Are there any questions about this team as long as Bill Belichick is holding the reins? This is the guy who made Romeo Crennel and Charlie Weis seem like geniuses when they worked for him, and you can see how good they are looking now. Belichick's staff is masterful, at least in the regular season, at adjusting to every situation they face. They are the ones who created the gameplan that made Cassel look like Dan Marino on a good day, and they are the ones who are likely to get this team into the playoffs. It might not be pretty, and they may not do much once they get there, but chances are better that they will get there with this caching staff than with any other in the league.
Future odds - According to Bodog, there are six teams more likely than the Patriots to win the AFC. You have to take that with a grain of salt, though - one of those teams in San Diego, and they have to figure out a way to get to .500 before they can even think about the playoffs. Though that's not exactly a ringing endorsement for New England, it could present some value. The AFC is as wide open as it has been in years, and the Pats at 12/1 look pretty good when compared to others. The Steelers and Jets are far less attractive at 5/1, and I'd trust Cassel under pressure at 12/1 more comfortably than Joe Flacco at 7/1.