You might think that the Patriots are in pretty good shape right now, sitting
at 7-3, with a two-game lead in the AFC East. Tied for the second-best record
in the AFC, some are dreaming of snapping up that coveted first-round bye for
the playoffs.



Don't be fooled. The next two games are going to be tough. Very tough. Worst
case scenario, they lose both, and lose the AFC East. Best case scenario, they
win both, and those dreams of the first round bye become a little more
realistic.



Last season at this time, the New York Jets sat at 7-3 after beating the
Patriots in New England. The Patriots fell to 6-4 and the Dolphins also sat at
6-4. At the moment, Miami is 5-5 and traveling to Buffalo this Sunday, where
they should win. That bump them up to 6-5. This Patriots game with New Orleans
is going to be a tough one. As much as I hope they can win a shootout with the
unbeaten Saints, I don't know if they can do it. A loss drops them to 7-4 and
the following week's game in Miami would give the Dolphins the opportunity to
tie the Patriots in the standings at 7-5.



Last year, The Jets scored their biggest win of the season when they went to
Tennessee and knocked off the unbeaten Titans, who like the Saints, were at
10-0 coming in. The Jets moved to 8-3, and still found a way to finished behind
both the Dolphins and Patriots. We can take comfort in knowing that the
Patriots are not the Jets, and likely would not blow such a lead. but it can
happen. The Dolphins, even with all their injuries, seem to be a typical Bill
Parcells team in that they get better as the season goes on. Fortunately, this
is also a trait of Bill Belichick teams.



Thus, Monday night's game in New Orleans is incredibly important for this
Patriots team on a number of levels. They don't want to be in the position of
playing for the division on December 6th in Miami. They need a win to keep the
Dolphins at bay in the AFC East. They need to get a road win (apparently
beating Tampa in London doesn't count), they need a "statement"
victory to show their status as a true contender, or whether they are a notch
below the top group, and they need a win to stay in the race for that
first-round bye in the playoffs.



I've already said I don't know if the Patriots can win this game, but I'm
clinging to a few items for hope. The Patriots offense is likely one of the few
in the league that has the potential to match the New Orleans offense,
score-for-score. They're going to need to put up points to have a chance in
this one. The game against the Colts, if you take away the final two minutes,
was actually very encouraging, as it showed that the Patriots are capable of
taking on a contender on the road. They now need to finish off a contender on
the road. The Patriots are 14-0 over the last four seasons when playing NFC
teams. Their last loss to an NFC opponent was to the Carolina Panthers back in
September of 2005. The Patriots, and particularly the defense, have something
to prove, and may look at this as the game to do it. We can't blame the Saints
for their schedule, they can only play the games they're scheduled for, and to
their credit, they've been perfect thus far. But they haven't faced an offense
the caliber of New England's. This will be a test for New Orleans, as well.



While the Patriots mantra is "one game at a time," it is especially
true this week. 7-3 doesn't mean anything, all that matters is 1-0 this week.





Bruce Allen is the creator of Boston Sports Media Watch,
which has recently been recognized by SI.com as one of the best non-corporate
sports web site's on the Internet