The Patriots have a decision to make in their final three games after a monumental collapse in Las Vegas.
Bill Belichick’s team could let Sunday’s disastrous finish define their season, meaning they won’t make the playoffs. If the Pats don’t rally around each other to correct their mistakes, New England, which faces three opponents with a combined record of 29-13, will end the season with four straight losses and enter an uncertain offseason likely filled with significant changes .
The other path the Patriots could take is to come together in their darkest hour and compete down the stretch to make a legitimate playoff run. According to Football Outsiders, the Patriots have a 16.8% chance of getting an invite to the dance. Yes, those are long odds. But a few wins against AFC opponents ahead of them in the standings is still possible.
While a different approach to offense is necessary regardless of how the season ends, New England’s resilience as they fight to the finish line will show the character of their current roster and quell concerns about the total buy-in with Belichick at the helm. If it goes in the wrong direction, there will be serious questions about the coaching staff and personnel from top to bottom.
To say these are three big games for Belichick, his coaching staff and the leaders on this team is an understatement.
Moving on to this week’s opponent, the Patriots begin a season-defining stretch against the defending AFC champions, the Cincinnati Bengals. After a bumpy start with two straight losses out of the gate, the defending conference champions are competing for the number one seed by winning ten of their last 12 games and have now won six in a row heading into Week 16.
Cincinnati turned its franchise around by selecting college teammates Joe Burrow and wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase in back-to-back drafts. The dynamic duo has catapulted the Bengals offense to a red-hot finish en route to Super Bowl LVI and now picks up where they left off with the fifth-ranked offense in Football Outsiders’ DVOA poll this season.
Defensively, the Bengals may not have players who are household names. But they’re a well-orchestrated group under defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo with above-average and under-the-radar blue-chip talent backing it up to 12th in DVOA after a stellar 2021 postseason.
The Patriots had a chance to come home from their West Coast trip in control of their destiny for a Wild Card berth. However, it went down the drain when the Pats led 24-17 with 3:43 left in the fourth quarter against the Raiders.
New England made the road challenging for itself. Only they can save their season, starting by stealing a win against a Bengals team that is better on paper and playing vastly superior football offensively this season.
Here’s a three-step plan and key matchups as the Patriots try to pull off a home upset on Saturday:
1. Playing Man coverage against Burrow, Chase and the Bengals is a death sentence
The best way to describe the Cincinnati offense is that they have better players than you and they know it, so that’s how offensive coordinator Brian Callahan calls the game.
Knowing that quarterback Joe Burrow will hunt for matchups with his wide receiver trio of Chase, Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd, Callahan and head coach Zac Taylor don’t let complicated schemes get in the way of their players doing what they do best. For example, Chase ranks third in the NFL in receiving touchdowns (eight) when he’s aligned, where he’s a nightmare for opposing cornerbacks on go routes, back-shoulder fades and slants, according to NextGen Stats.