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Five playoff contenders facing toughest schedules down the stretch

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Nominally contenders, the Patriots have put themselves in a rough spot with five games to go. This is a .500 team with few factors providing a playoff edge, outside of a season sweep of the 7-5 Jets. New England’s best hope is to finish with the same record as New York and squeeze in on a tiebreaker.

But that’s asking a lot, considering who the Pats play down the home stretch. Two West Coast games kick it off, as the Patriots travel to Arizona and Las Vegas the next two weeks. On paper, those are winnable games, but the Cardinals are coming off a bye, and the Raiders, winners of three straight, have looked like a completely different team the past few weeks. (There’s also the Josh McDaniels factor in Las Vegas, whatever that’s worth, as the former longtime Patriots assistant and Bill Belichick face off as head coaches for the first time since the 2009 season.)

Even if the Patriots can win those two, they must return home — where they’re only 3-3, with wins over the Jets, Colts and Lions — to face the Bengals and Dolphins. Those teams possess two of the top offenses in the AFC, and though Belichick’s defense has been fairly good this season, it has struggled, by and large, against better quarterbacks.

Plus, can anyone trust the Patriots’ offense at this point? After a stronger outing at Minnesota in Week 12, they struggled last week again. Oh, and the team they couldn’t move the ball against, the Bills, are the Week 18 opponent — in Buffalo. 

If there’s a silver lining, it’s that the Bills might be in a position to sit people in that final game, depending on how things shake out over the next month. But after years of having its face kicked in by New England, Buffalo now is the big brother in the relationship, winning five of the past six meetings. Don’t you think the Bills would relish burying the Patriots in that game with a chance to knock them from the playoffs?

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