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For Patriots, soft schedule leads to hard questions

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff  November 21, 2011 10:26 AM

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In the AFC this season, the competition is truly American. Virtually everyone has a chance. Almost no one is discounted. And so the landscape changes on a week-to-week basis.

That considered, it's time for the Patriots to truly identify themselves. And to ask whether their creampuff schedule helps them or hurts them.

Fresh off a Sunday night thrashing of the suddenly reeling New York Jets, the Patriots return to the field tonight against the Kansas City Chiefs, their proteges to the west. All signs point to a victory. The Chiefs are without Matt Cassel and the Patriots are at home, and there has been decidedly little discussion or hype about this game for a one very simple reason.

The Patriots are favored to win.

By a lot.

Which is what concerns those of us who always need something to fret about.

Take a good look at the AFC standings this morning, people. Save for four teams -- the Indianapolis Colts, Jacksonville Jaguars, Cleveland Browns and Miami Dolphins -- everyone else is still in the hunt for a playoff spot. The entire conference feels like one enormous mass of relative mediocrity, a fact that brings with it both positives and negatives. In the AFC this year, most everyone has a shot, which means just about anyone can be beaten.

Precisely where the Patriots stand on that spectrum is certainly debatable, and we are all inclined to believe that New England is closer to the top of the conference than the middle. But how do we really know? In the last month, the Patriots have lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers and New York Giants, defeated the Dallas Cowboys and New York Jets. The Pats have oscillated from disappointing losers (at Pittsburgh) to unexpected victors (at the Jets), devoid of that quality that has defined them during the large majority of the Bill Belichick era.

Consistency.

Beginning tonight, the Patriots have another opportunity to prove their worth, at least as much as any team can do so given the schedule the Patriots now possess. With a 6-3 record heading into the final seven weeks of the season, the Patriots have games remaining against Kansas City (4-5), Philadelphia (4-6), Indianapolis (0-10), Washington (3-7), Denver (5-5), Miami (3-7) and Buffalo (5-5). Combined those teams are 24-45. Not a single one of them possesses a winning record.

And yet, as much as we all know the Patriots should win all (or at least most) of those games, there is still great uncertainty given the schizophrenic nature of this club's behavior.

But really. After home victories against the Jets and Cowboys during which the Patriots defense appeared to show some signs of progress, New England looked relatively inept against the Steelers and Giants. Then New England came off and defeated the Jets with a defense that included Jeff Tarpinian and Sterling Moore, the latest in a series of no-name passengers on the carousel that is Belichick's defense.

Meanwhile, the offense hasn't been all that steady, either. The Cowboys, Steelers and Giants all smacked the Patriots around, the New England offense at that time looking as predictable and vulnerable as it did in 2009.

All of that brings us to the remaining Patriots schedule, a procession filled at the moment with backup quarterbacks and faceless counterparts. You say Sterling Moore, they say Tyler Palko. You say Tarpinian, they say Matt Moore. Painter, Tebow and Grossman (or Beck) might sound look a good collection of accountants, but as far as NFL quarterbacks go, it compares far more accurately with Millen, Wilson and Hodson.

What does this mean for the Patriots? In all likelihood, bad quarterbacking, which will be a good thing for the Patriots' ultimate placement in the AFC hierarchy. New England still might actually be able to secure a first-round bye. The question is whether that will merely set the Patriots up for another one-and-done performance in the playoffs, something rapidly becoming the latest New England and New Year tradition.

Seriously. Given the developments on the New England defense this season, the Patriots' only chance to get out of the AFC is for their current defense to improve dramatically. Ty Law is not walking through that door. Maybe Andre Carter will continue playing like Andre Tippett, but the Pats' best chance is otherwise to get unexpected and continued improvement from the group of defensive backs and linebackers they possess.

Given that reality, a game against a good quarterback might help. Heck, Andy Dalton or Carson Palmer would qualify as a major upgrade at this point. Instead, the Patriots will generally get a succession of nothings and nobodies, which will hardly prepare them for another meeting with Ben Roethlisberger.

But then, short of Big Ben, the Patriots aren't likely to see a truly above-average quarterback until the divisional round at the earliest, unless you count Andy Dalton. Or Carson Palmer. Or Matt Hasselbeck.

And we don't. (Philip Rivers is a maybe.)

In the end, here's the point: how much do the Pats really have to gain in their final seven weeks? Philadelphia is a potentially intriguing matchup in Week 12 if for no other reason than the Eagles have talent, though Michael Vick missed last night's game against the Giants with broken ribs. Even if Vick plays, he is back to being a wildcard at best, which brings us back to the original issues.

Beginning tonight, the Patriots are likely to win a lot of games down the stretch of this NFL season.

But how much are we going to learn about them?

And more importantly, how much better will they really get?

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Updated: Mar 1, 07:24 AM

About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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