It’s deja vu for the New England Patriots.

The Patriots will play the – shall we say hapless? – New York Jets at Gillette Stadium at 1 p.m. Saturday. They enter the game as the No. 1 seed in the AFC, with a chance to clinch the top spot with a win over the Jets and an Oakland Raiders’ loss or tie to the Indianapolis Colts. If they win but don’t clinch this week, they get another opportunity next week at Miami.

That’s almost the exact same scenario they had last year, when all they needed to do was win one of their last two games – at the Jets or at the Dolphins – to clinch the No. 1 seed in the AFC and secure home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

Of course, if you recall, the Patriots didn’t win either of those two games.

They lost 26-20 in overtime to the Jets, a game in which Coach Bill Belichick chose to kick off after winning the overtime coin toss. Ryan Fitzpatrick drove the Jets 80 yards in five plays to beat the Patriots on a 6-yard touchdown pass to Eric Decker.

Then New England went to stumbling Miami and got spanked, 20-10.

Patriots fans gnashed their teeth and wailed over those losses, knowing that the Patriots would go into the playoffs as the No. 2 seed behind Denver. The result was a trip to the Mile High City for the AFC championship game – in a stadium where the Patriots historically struggle and where they have never won a playoff game. They could have been playing instead in Foxborough, where the Patriots are 15-3 in the playoffs with Tom Brady at quarterback.

The Patriots couldn’t break through in Denver, losing 20-18 to Peyton Manning and the Broncos as they were denied a chance to repeat as Super Bowl champions.

So what does all this mean?

Simple: If the Patriots are to reach the Super Bowl for a seventh time in this Brady-Belichick era of brilliance, they need to go in as the No. 1 seed.

Going in as the top seed doesn’t guarantee anything, as the Patriots know very well. New England went in No. 1 in 2010 with a 14-2 record but lost 28-21 to the Jets in the AFC divisional round.

But historically, the Patriots are pretty darn good as a No. 1 seed.

They’ve earned that spot five times: 2003, 2007, 2010, 2011 and 2014. Four of those seasons ended with an appearance in the Super Bowl. Two of those seasons ended with a Super Bowl championship, in 2003 (Carolina, 32-29) and 2014 (Seattle, 28-24). The other two seasons ended with Super Bowl losses to the New York Giants, in 2007 (17-14) and 2011 (21-17).

The Patriots have won the Super Bowl twice as the No. 2 seed, in 2001 (St. Louis, 2017) and 2004 (Philadelphia, 24-21). Each time, New England went to Pittsburgh and beat the Steelers in the AFC championship game.

But the clearest and most direct path to the Super Bowl is to earn the No. 1 seed. That would assure the Patriots of not having to play on the road, where they have a 3-4 playoff record with Brady as the starting quarterback.

So it would behoove the Patriots to once again claim the No. 1 seed. And, based on the last couple games, they’re certainly playing like a No. 1 seed.

The Patriots (12-2) have won five consecutive games since a 31-24 home loss to Seattle on Nov. 13. They’ve done it in a number of ways, including putting up 30 points and 496 total yards against what was then the NFL’s top-ranked defense – the Baltimore Ravens. But the Patriots’ defense has been most impressive in recent weeks, shutting down the run, sacking quarterbacks and forcing turnovers.

New England’s defensive statistics are remarkably better than they were following the Seahawks loss.

The Patriots now rank first in the NFL in fewest points allowed per game (16.6). They were sixth-best at 18.1 per game after the Seattle loss.

New England is allowing 87.9 rushing yards per game (fourth) and 336 total yards (10th), as opposed to 101 rushing yards (14th) and 361.4 total yards (18th) before the winning streak.

The Patriots have 16 sacks in the last five games after recording just 16 in the first nine games.

New England has four interceptions and three fumble recoveries during the winning streak, improving its turnover ratio to plus-6 (tied for sixth). The Patriots were plus-1 (tied for 13th) after the Seattle game.

With Brady at the helm and with weapons such as Rob Gronkowski, Corey Dillon, Randy Moss, Troy Brown, LeGarrette Blount, Julian Edelman, Wes Welker and others at Brady’s disposal, the Patriots’ offense has usually gotten the biggest share of the spotlight. But New England wouldn’t have won any of its championships without a quality defense.

This year’s group is rounding into shape.

The secondary, with cornerbacks Malcolm Butler, Eric Rowe and Logan Ryan and safeties Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung, is pretty good. Dont’a Hightower leads an improving linebacker group, bolstered by the midseason acquisition of Kyle Van Noy from Detroit. And the line, with the likes of Rob Ninkovich, Jabaal Sheard, Chris Long, Alan Branch, Trey Flowers and Malcom Brown, is wrecking havoc up front.

Two weeks remain for the Patriots to claim their sixth No. 1 seed in 14 years.

Let’s see if they learned from the lessons of 2015 and close out the season the way they need to.


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