Patriots won’t be derailed by loss to Titans, but playoff picture just got tougher

No play sequence from the Patriots’ stunning loss to the Titans on Sunday better encapsulated the state of the defending AFC champs than did the gadget call on an early fourth-quarter third down.

Tom Brady took the snap and executed the handoff to James White just fine. White ran to his left and then flipped the ball to Julian Edelman to the right as Brady went out for the pass. Brady caught the ball but stumbled to the ground short of the first down.

The Patriots just didn’t have their usual way against the Titans, who one play later ran the exact same play and saw their quarterback, Marcus Mariota, gain 21 yards on his reception. Throughout the game, the NFL’s gold standard franchise couldn’t find their groove on offense or defense and were embarrassed in a 34-10 defeat, dropping the team to 7-3 on the season.

The Titans exposed some of New England's weaknesses. But the Patriots are the Patriots. The loss to the Titans will not derail their season. And because of a lack of competition in the AFC East, New England should still roll to a record 10th straight division title.

But due in part to their latest defeat, the Patriots very well could find themselves in a precarious situation when it comes to playoff seeding.

Six games remain for New England, but if the playoffs ended today, Bill Belichick and Co. would hold the third seed in the AFC. That would mean no first-round bye and, more importantly, no home-field advantage in the division or conference championship rounds.

Having the top seed has always mattered greatly to the Patriots. The paths to each of their last five Super Bowl appearances have featured home victories in the AFC Championship Games. Meanwhile, they have lost in the last three conference title games that they played on the road.

Catching up to the AFC's top contenders could be extremely difficult.

Leading the pack is Kansas City (9-1). The Patriots edged the Chiefs in Foxborough, so they hold the head-to-head tiebreaker. But they still trail by two games. New England's final stretch features a pair of meetings with the hapless Jets and a game apiece against the Dolphins and Bills. But potentially challenging matchups with the Vikings and Steelers also await New England. If they hope to catch the Chiefs, the Patriots will likely need some help.

Catching the Steelers for the second seed might be a more realistic a goal for the Patriots. With dates against the Patriots, Chargers and Saints, Pittsburgh has one of the most challenging remaining schedules of any team in the league.

But given New England struggled against the strong pass-rushing attacks of Tennessee, Detroit and Jacksonville earlier this season, the Steelers don’t represent the most favorable matchup for the Patriots.

Unlike the Patriots, who at times seem to have identity issues, the Steelers know who they are and how they want to beat you. They boast the No. 8 defense in the league and the fourth-best offense. They present a physical rushing attack with James Conner and a big-play passing attack thanks to Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster.

That sounds like the kind of squad that could give the Patriots all sorts of problems and threaten their chances of reaching the Super Bowl for a third consecutive year.

The ax falls in Cincinnati

Three straight games of surrendering 30-plus points and 500 yards resulted in a pink slip for Cincinnati Bengals defensive coordinator Teryl Austin. Once regarded as a promising head coaching candidate, Austin instead joined Marvin Lewis’ staff this past offseason but lasted just nine games.

Sunday’s 51-point, 509-yard outing by the Saints was the last straw for Lewis, who has now fired a coordinator during the season in each of the last two years. In 2017, Lewis fired offensive coordinator Ken Zampese after an 0-2 start.

In-season coordinator firings don't always spark a turnaround. But firing Zampese and handing the offense to quarterbacks coach Bill Lazor did help get the Bengals’ attack on track last season. But there will be no in-house promotions to replace Austin, as Lewis is taking over the defense himself.

It appears that Lewis understands the sense of urgency at hand. The Bengals are 5-4 and remain in contention for a wild-card berth. Cincinnati travels to take on a desperate Ravens team on Sunday and has meetings with the Chargers and Steelers ahead as well. 

Lewis has eliminated a potential scapegoat by firing Austin with seven games left in the season. Now, it’s all on him.

Jets sticking with Bowles

Despite an embarrassing blowout win by the Bills, who were led by recently signed quarterback Matt Barkley, the Jets will stick with head coach Todd Bowles for now, according to multiple reports.

A firing would not have surprised anyone, especially after cornerback Morris Claiborne said on Sunday players “laid down” against the Bills. But in-season dismissals aren’t the Jets’ style. They likely know a change must be made, and Bowles should know his time is probably up. But for owners Christopher and Woody Johnson, there's little to be gained by making a move now.

New York needs to do more than change its head coach, however. Outside of young quarterback Sam Darnold, this roster features very few building blocks. It’s debatable whether general manager Mike Maccagnan, who has produced just one winning season since taking over in 2015, is the man to lead such a rebuild.

Follow Mike Jones on Twitter @ByMikeJones.

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