Patriots can miss playoffs with 11-5 record
Denver and Arizona could wind up at 8-8 and get in.
That's the same Denver team the Patriots routed 41-7 in the seventh week of the season and the same Arizona team that has clinched the NFC West, but is an 8-point underdog to the Patriots in Foxborough on Sunday.
Nearly perfect last season, all the team of the decade can do is play its last two regular-season games and hope the outcomes of others help them reach the postseason for the sixth straight year -- and give them another chance for their fourth title in eight years after finishing 18-1 with a Super Bowl loss to the New York Giants.
If Patriots coach Bill Belichick thinks it's unfair for a team with three fewer wins to reach the playoffs while his team becomes the first 11-5 club to miss the postseason in 23 years, he's not saying.
"I'm not even thinking about it. I'm not sure exactly what all the scenarios are. It doesn't make any difference," he said Monday. "There's a million things that can happen and the only thing we can control is how we prepare and play against Arizona."
His players are taking the same approach: win two games then see where they end up.
"I love the challenge," safety Brandon Meriweather said. "I'm more excited than anything just to see how it's all going to play out and see how well the team is going to play in the last couple games."
The Patriots could dominate them the way they dominated Oakland in a 49-26 win Sunday and still be on the sidelines, as so many of their injured players are, when the playoffs begin. Of course, they also could finish at 9-7, while the Broncos and Cardinals can win their divisions at 10-6.
But the Patriots also will be favored in their last regular-season game, at Buffalo.
The Bills have lost seven of their last eight games and are winless in the AFC East. The other three teams in the division -- New England, Miami and New York -- are all 9-5, but the Dolphins and Jets would have the tiebreaker edge over the Patriots if all three finish with the same record.
The Patriots also need help in the wild-card race.
Indianapolis leads it at 10-4, faces a weak Jacksonville team on Thursday and would win a tiebreaker because it beat New England. Baltimore is currently second at 9-5 and also would win a tiebreaker over the Patriots with a better conference record if both are 11-5. But if the Ravens lose to Dallas or Jacksonville, the Patriots would edge them with two wins.
On Sunday, Meriweather will be focusing on Kurt Warner and the Cardinals' strong passing attack, not on the scoreboard to see how other teams are doing.
"That's something I would never do," he said. "I'd rather take care of my own business and perform and make it on my own, so I'm really not concerning myself with other people just because that will stress you out and I'm trying not to be stressed at all."
The only time in 30 years of the 16-game schedule when an 11-5 team missed the playoffs was in 1985, when Denver fell short. That also was the only year an 8-8 team, Cleveland, won its division.
That was the same season when the Patriots reached the Super Bowl for the first time, losing 46-10 to Chicago. New England won its first championship in the 2001 season, when it won the AFC East with an 11-5 record.
But that team wasn't battered by injuries like this year's club. Brady was lost for the season in the opener and safety Rodney Harrison, linebacker Adalius Thomas and running back Laurence Maroney are on injured reserve. Also sidelined are linebackers Tedy Bruschi and Pierre Woods, safety James Sanders and left tackle Matt Light, who left with a shoulder injury in the second quarter Sunday.
That has brought the healthy players closer.
"Everybody has to lean on each other because we knew once Tom, Hot Rod's (Harrison) and all the other injuries happened, that everybody else was going to be against us and we had to pull together and carry each other," Meriweather said.
Belichick said Monday he had no information that Light would miss the rest of the season, but that could change. Even without Light for the entire second half, the Patriots rushed for 277 yards Sunday and Matt Cassel was sacked just twice. Cassel threw for a career-high four touchdowns just six days after his father, Greg, died at age 57 in California.
Cassel stayed on the West Coast for Tuesday's funeral and will return to prepare for Arizona.
The Cardinals began the weekend with the No. 2 passing attack in the NFL, but lost 35-14 to Minnesota as Warner threw just one scoring pass. But wide receivers Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald will go against a porous Patriots secondary..
"As we all know (they're a) very high-scoring, quick-strike offensive football team," Belichick said. "Some pretty dynamic receivers. So we've got a lot of work to do there.
"We're down to a two-game season."
With a chance to play more, or not, if they win both.
Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press
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