The New England Patriots claim they don't think about playoff seeding. They say the only games they focus on are the next one or two. Win and their postseason position will take care of itself.
Winning their remaining two regular-season games, though, may not help this time around. Not after Sunday night's 41-34 loss to the San Francisco 49ers.
The Patriots (10-4) went into it in second place in the AFC and in strong position to snare one of two conference byes. They came out in third place with the likely prospect of having to play a wild-card game. After that — should they win and move on — a road game in the divisional round might be next. Not easy.
Not that it's on their minds, though.
"I'm not even thinking about the playoffs right now," linebacker Rob Ninkovich said Monday. "I'm just focusing on the next two games."
It was a day-after-game reality the Patriots don't face very often — coping with a loss.
They had won seven straight since losing 24-23 at the Seattle Seahawks on Oct. 14. They had a streak of 20 consecutive home victories in December, dating back to 2002, snapped. And they had won 21 games in a row in the second half of the schedule starting at the midpoint in 2010.
But, for coach Bill Belichick, Monday was just another day to wrap up the Patriots' latest effort and look ahead to the next one.
"I'd say we pretty much do the same thing we always do," he said. "We'll look and talk about the game. We'll talk about the things that we did right and reinforce those. We'll talk about the things we did wrong and correct those. Once that's over with, we'll put this game to rest and move on to Jacksonville."
The Jaguars (2-12) are far less formidable than the 49ers (10-3-1). Their 24-3 loss to Miami on Sunday was their seventh by at least 16 points, and guaranteed that they would have at least a tie for the worst record in franchise history (1995, 4-12).
The Patriots finish the regular season a week later against the Dolphins (6-8). If New England wins its remaining games, Denver (11-3) would have to lose one of its games — against struggling Cleveland (5-9) or Kansas City (2-12) — for the Patriots to take the No. 2 spot.
The Texans (12-2) lead the AFC and have games left vs. Minnesota (8-6) and Indianapolis (9-5).
"The seeding and all that will play out how it plays out," safety Steve Gregory said. "We've still got a few games left here, so we'll just grind away and get on to the next game."
The last one was memorable, even if the Patriots lost.
One week after routing the Texans, 42-14, the Patriots were on the other end of a lopsided score, trailing 31-3 five minutes into the third quarter. Then they scored 28 points in just over 14 minutes, a stunning comeback that tied the game at 31-31 with 6:43 left.
Only one team had won a regular-season game after trailing by 28 points and it was the 49ers. They overcame a 35-7 halftime deficit and beat New Orleans, 38-35, on Dec. 7, 1980.
But today's 49ers needed just two plays on Sunday — a 62-yard kickoff return by LaMichael James and a 38-yard touchdown pass from Colin Kaepernick to Michael Crabtree — to take the lead for good.
"The way we played, we can't beat anybody," New England defensive tackle Vince Wilfork said. "We played a brutal first half and then, all of a sudden, in one quarter we came out and everything clicked. So we just have to be more consistent."
And more careful. The Patriots had an NFL-low 10 giveaways going into the game but committed four against the 49ers.
"We did enough things to make it a competitive game in the end," Belichick said, "but we had too many things that weren't good enough."
The Patriots did show an ability to rally from a huge deficit, though. They may need to show that skill again, later on.
"I love the way that we fought the whole game and, again, you can't put yourself in a hole like we did early in the game and expect to win those games," Ninkovich said. "Obviously, you don't want to have that feeling of a loss, but, again, I just go back to taking this as a learning experience."
Of course, it might come at the expense of a bye.
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