EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — The primary issue confronting the New England Patriots at the moment is not whether they will advance to the postseason, because they have advanced to the postseason every year since the Louisiana Purchase, or close to it.
Every season, they get 16 games to resolve, or practice concealing, the inadequacies that might prevent them from winning the Super Bowl, which they usually accomplish well enough to win two playoff games, or even three, earning the perpetual envy of distressed NFL teams everywhere.
The next five weeks, then, will shape New England’s candidacy as a contender in an evolving league whose top teams seem to set passing records in every game (as the Patriots do not), seem to score on every possession (as the Patriots do not) and seem to thrash each of their supposedly inferior opponents (as the Patriots have not).
As ever, New England (8-3) is stampeding toward another AFC title, taking the latest step in a 27-13 victory against the New York Jets on Sunday before a crowd at MetLife Stadium that was teeming with Patriots fans.
The Patriots prevailed after a lethargic first half because they had Tom Brady and Sony Michel, and that potent tandem can counterbalance certain flaws against certain teams — such as the Jets, who appear to be careening toward an ignominious trifecta: a last-place finish, an eighth straight year missing the playoffs and an offseason coaching search.
How the Patriots handled the Jets, though, does not matter to New England, as the Jets will not rank among their potential playoff opponents. What is important is whether New England is constructed to score enough points while sufficiently limiting the dynamic offenses dominating the NFL.
“We want to be physical,” said Michel, who had 133 of the Patriots’ 215 rushing yards, the team’s most in four seasons, and a touchdown. “When you’re physical, you can run the ball, you can throw the ball. It’s almost like you control the line of scrimmage and do what you want to do.”
Conversely, opposing teams for years have espoused the importance of running well against New England. The most reliable way to prevent Brady from shredding a defense is to keep him off the field and keep the clock churning. That approach will serve teams well against front-runners like the New Orleans Saints, the Los Angeles Rams and the Kansas City Chiefs.
The Patriots entered Sunday averaging 3.9 yards a rush, 27th in the league, and recorded all of 40 rushing yards in their last game, a desultory 34-10 loss at Tennessee. That afternoon, Michel, still slowed by a knee injury, rushed for 31. He benefited from the Patriots’ bye last week, as did right guard Shaq Mason and tight end Rob Gronkowski, who each had missed the previous two games.
“This is kind of the first time we’ve had a lot of guys healthier,” said Brady, who completed 20 of 31 passes for 283 yards and two touchdowns. “It just helped everything out.”
The Patriots otherwise manhandled the Jets, outgaining them 498 to 338. They inflicted physical discomfort, too, with receiver Cordarrelle Patterson — responding to what he described as Jets defensive end Henry Anderson putting his crotch in his face — grabbing Anderson in a rather sensitive area.
“I’m a grown man,” Patterson said, adding, “It’s disrespectful.”
Had the Patriots not struggled with coverage; with tackling; and with the concept that pre-snap penalties are bad and personal fouls are, too, then they would not have been tied with the Jets deep into the third quarter. New England gained 246 yards in the first half and allowed no sacks, but still scored just 10 points. And they were fortunate even to have scored the touchdown, given that it came after Jets coach Todd Bowles opted to accept a 10-yard pass-interference penalty on third-and-2 at the Jets’ 24 instead of forcing a field-goal attempt. Given another chance, Brady on the next play connected with Gronkowski for a 34-yard touchdown.
The Patriots are far more formidable with a healthy Gronkowski, who not only draws coverage away from receivers Julian Edelman and Josh Gordon but also might be the best run-blocking tight end in the NFL. New England also expects to soon regain the versatile running back Rex Burkhead, who will complement Michel and James White, who ran for 73 yards on nine carries.
White, you may recall, scored the winning touchdown in the Patriots’ last Super Bowl win, two seasons ago against Atlanta. In that postseason, like in all others since 2010, New England rested on the opening weekend, benefiting from a first-round bye.
The Patriots are seeded second in the AFC, behind Kansas City (9-2), which is off this week. New England lags because it has lost to three teams that might not even reach the playoffs: Detroit, Jacksonville and Tennessee.
The game that could have the biggest effect on New England’s playoff seeding, as well as the landscape in the AFC, will come in Week 15, when the Patriots visit Pittsburgh (7-3-1), which had won six straight before losing at Denver on Sunday. A victory there would give them wins against all three of the other AFC division leaders, including the Chiefs and the Houston Texans.
Before the Patriots can envision playoff permutations, though, they must next face Minnesota, which entered its game Sunday night having allowed the fewest rushing yards per attempt this season. That’s when the Patriots will learn whether they’ve truly resurrected their running game.
It’s a new concern for a team accustomed to having one of the most coveted offenses in the league — if not the most — and the most coveted quarterback. That second distinction, at least this season, belongs to Drew Brees, Patrick Mahomes or Jared Goff. The Patriots, though, with a 41-year-old Brady, are recalibrating how to win, with a commitment to balance that they hope will serve them well in January, be it at New England, Kansas City or Atlanta, the site of Super Bowl LIII.