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Trade-Off: It’s Time to Talk Patriots’ Playoffs-Prospectus With Trade Deadline Now in the Past

Can the 4-4 New England Patriots earn a berth in the 2021 NFL Playoffs?

Another trade deadline bites the dust…and the Pats stood pat.

Despite reasons to improve their depth at cornerback, wide receiver and other positions, the New England Patriots chose not to make a trade to fortify their roster for the remainder of the 2021 season. At the end of the day (both literally and figuratively) the decision may have been the best one for New England. With limited financial resources and thin draft capital, the Patriots ability to indulge in the supply was inadequate, despite a palpable demand.

Therefore, with the image of the 2021 NFL Trade Deadline slowly starting to fade from the hindsight of NFL teams, media and fans alike, it is now time to discuss the true business of the league’s 32 teams: Making the Playoffs

At 4-4 through their first eight games, the Patriots currently sit in eighth place in the AFC, just one half-game out of the Conference’s final wild card spot. With the top seven teams (four division winners and three wild cards) earning a playoff berth, it is far from a stretch to say that the Pats have a legitimate shot at postseason play.

Statistically speaking, New England’s chances of making the cut are currently 50-50, literally. Heading into Week Nine, the Pats have a 50 percent possibility of partaking in postseason play. Even with the Kansas City Chiefs’ victory over the New York Giants on Monday, the Patriots still hold the advantage in the tie-breake over Kansas City and the Cleveland Browns (with whom they share a 4-4 record) based on their best-win percentage in Conference games. Per ESPN’s prognostications, the divisional tie-break was initially used to eliminate the Denver Broncos, who also sport a 4-4 record, with Kansas City owning the tie-break based on best-win percentage in common games.

Still, a 50 percent possibility of making the playoffs, also means that New England has an equal chance of missing them.

So, how do they get there? They win.

After starting the season at 1-3, the Patriots have been the winners of three of their last four games. Three of their losses (Miami in Week One, Tampa Bay in Week Four, and Dallas in Week Six) were all within New England’s grasp. In fact, one might make the argument that this team might have been a play or two away from being 7-1.

Following their victory over the Chargers in Week Eight, the Pats are entering a three-game stretch of winnable games prior to Thanksgiving. As head coach Bill Belichick has often used the late-November holiday as a point in which a team may truly gauge their playoff potential, Patriots’ victories in each of these games would go a long way in allowing their playoff aspirations to go from a ‘possibility’ to a ‘probability.’

Here is what the Patriots schedule looks like over the next three weeks:

Week 9 — Sun, Nov 7 @Carolina (presently 4-4)

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Week 10 — Sun, Nov 14 vs Cleveland (presently 4-4)

Week 11 — Thu, Nov 18 @ Atlanta (presently 3-4)

While far too many scenarios exist for making exact prognostications, conventional wisdom states that the Pats’ chances increase with each victory. Three wins would increase the percentage of New England’s playoff chances from approximately 50 percent to greater-than 80 percent heading into their Week Twelve matchup with the Tennessee Titans. Three losses would reduce that probability to less-than 15 percent. The ‘essential’ win among the three games is obviously Cleveland, which would be a Conference win over a team with an identical (or at least similar) record. Winning two of three (including the Cleveland game) puts their chances at greater than 60 percent heading into Thanksgiving weekend. Still, assuming that the Pats finish this stretch with a 1-3 record (with the lone win coming over the Browns), the team would face an uphill battle, with an estimated chance of success at less-than 35 percent. Difficult, but not impossible. (estimated percentages determined by using PFR Win Probability Model)

As a result, Weeks Nine through Eleven may play a key role in determining the playoff potential of the 2021 New England Patriots. While the Pats could still drop all three and make the playoffs, the odds would be insurmountably stacked against them. Fortunately for the Pats, they presently score fairly well on arguably the best predictor of a team's performance going forward for the rest of the season. The NFL’s Football Power Index (FPI) currently has the Pats ranked tenth among teams with the most positive outlook.

Per ESPN, @SethWalder

Per ESPN, @SethWalder

While stats can provide a nearly endless amount of hypotheticals, the games must be won by the players on the field. While each of their next three opponents have their share of question marks, the Pats prognosis is largely positive because of the prowess they have shown in recent weeks. Despite an ‘up and down’ performance on Sunday, quarterback Mac Jones continues to demonstrate more comfort and command when driving the Patriots offense. Defensively, New England’s front seven, led by linebacker Matt Judon and rookie defensive tackle Christian Barmore, has grown in prowess each week. As a result, the Pats are developing into a well-rounded team in all three phases.

Though there may be several new faces in Foxboro, the deciding factor in the Pats ability to contend for a playoff spot might just be something that is quintessentially New England: leadership. The Patriots are fortunate to employ several savvy veterans as captains such as center David Andrews, special teams ace Matthew Slater and safety Devin McCourty. In a recent interview with MMQB’s Albert Breer, the Pats defensive captain expressed his belief in the 4-4 Patriots’ ability to win.

“I think the biggest thing is to learn how to win as a team,” McCourty told Breer. “Obviously [Matt] Judon knows how to win. I would say even Mac [Jones] does, being at ‘Bama. We have winners here but you have to learn how to win as a team. And I think Bill [Belichick] said it earlier this season: ‘It’s about playing well in the critical situations, when offensively they know we need to run the ball and stay in bounds and have good plays.’ And we do that. …”

Still, the Pats’ understand the effort and execution required for them to return to the playoffs, after having missed the postseason in 2020; the first time they did so since 2008. Their captain believes that this team has the confidence to achieve that goal.

“I think we’ve learned what our blueprint is,” McCourty added. “We know what we have to do each week to go out there and play well. Like, we’re not a team that’s just gonna roll it out there. And my whole time being here, we’ve never had that kind of group. So I definitely think we have confidence, and I said it probably a couple weeks ago, your record is what it is. That’s who you are. There’s nothing else to really say. There’s a lot of teams who have confidence. It’s about going out and doing it. I think that’s what we’re doing a good job of now.”

On that basis, New England’s playoff aspirations are very much rooted in possibility. While fans and media continue to debate the statistical probability of their postseason prospectus, the Patriots will be taking it one game at a time, starting with this Sunday’s matchup with the Carolina Panthers. The stats are on their side, but it will take a team effort to achieve the goal. 

The New England Patriots would not have it any other way.