What a difference two weeks -- and a slew of crippling injuries -- can make. Fifteen days ago, the Patriots had a chance at an unbeaten season and were cruising toward another top seed in the playoffs. Now they are trying to bounce back from their first losing streak in three years when they face off against the Houston Texans on Sunday Night Football.
Once considered a shoo-in for the AFC's top postseason spot, back-to-back losses have dropped New England behind both the Cincinnati Bengals and Denver Broncos in the race for homefield advantage. Their odds to win the Super Bowl, per Football Outsiders' projections, have also taken a stunning hit recently. Over the last three weeks, they have fallen from 26 percent to just 10.5 percent, currently fifth behind the Carolina Panthers, Arizona Cardinals, Bengals and Broncos.
Despite the dramatic slide, the Patriots can take the first step toward defending their Super Bowl title on Sunday and clinch a playoff berth with a win over the Texans. If the Jets lose to the Titans earlier in the afternoon, a Patriots win would also secure their seventh straight AFC East title. That nearly unprecedented streak of dominance would tie the 1973-79 Los Angeles Rams for the most consecutive division titles in NFL history.
The Texans are also coming off a loss, one that snapped a promising four-game win streak. They wasted a huge opportunity to gain some ground in the Wild Card race and possibly take possession of first place in the AFC South. Instead, Houston finds itself back at .500 and tied with the Indianapolis Colts atop the standings. Those teams will meet on Dec. 20 with a possible division title on the line.
In the meantime, the Texans have to try and keep pace this week with a win over the Patriots, something that has been difficult in the short history of this rivalry. Houston has deep connections with the New England franchise -- Bill O'Brien, Romeo Crennel, Vince Wilfork and Brian Hoyer are among the current Texans who have played for or coached with the Patriots -- but they've had little success in beating them.
New England is 5-1 all-time against the Texans, the only loss coming in Week 17 of the 2009 season when the Patriots had the division wrapped up and rested some of their starters. Three of the five wins have come by double digits, and the Patriots have averaged 35 points in the six games overall.
For most franchises, a losing streak -- even the bare minimum definition of two games -- would hardly be cause for concern. In New England, however, consecutive losses by the Patriots is the equivalent of a five-alarm fire, prompting many to wonder if the sky is falling or the world is ending.
Before the Eagles pulled off the shocking upset at Gillette Field last week, the Patriots hadn't endured a losing streak of any length since Weeks 2 and 3 of the 2012 season. An even more stunning feat would be if New England somehow suffered another loss Sunday. It hasn't dropped three games in a row since 2002, a span of 212 straight games that is the second-longest such streak in NFL history. The San Francisco 49ers went 291 games between three-game losing streaks from 1980-99.
There are real concerns about this depleted version of the Patriots' offense as it looks like the injury attrition throughout the roster is finally starting to take its toll. The biggest impact might be in the trenches, where a reshuffled offensive line has been unable to protect Tom Brady.
His four highest pressure percentages faced this season have come in the last four weeks, and Brady's play has really suffered with little time to operate in the pocket, not to mention a lack of viable receiving options. He has thrown four picks in the last four games -- double the number in his first eight games -- while his completion rate and yards per attempt have trended downward over the past month.
The struggles of the Patriots' front five could become a critical problem on Sunday against the Texans and the league's most disruptive defensive player, J.J. Watt. The All-Pro defensive end leads the league with 13.5 sacks and has at least two takedowns in four of his last six games. He broke his hand in practice this week but didn't hesitate when he told reporters that he would definitely play on Sunday.
Bill Belichick had high praise for Watt, calling him "the same kind of player" as Hall of Fame linebacker Lawrence Taylor. Although he has a ways to go to match the decade-long dominance of L.T., Watt's first five pro seasons have been nearly unrivaled. He is the second-fastest player ever to reach 70 sacks, doing so in 75 games. Watt is also the only player in NFL history to have multiple 20-sack seasons, a milestone that Taylor reached once in his career.
Who to Watch
If the Texans are going to upset the Patriots, Brian Hoyer needs to feed DeAndre Hopkins in the passing game. The third-year receiver is on pace for an incredible 115 receptions and 1,558 receiving yards, threatening to break the franchise records of 115 and 1,598 set by Andre Johnson in 2008 and 2012.
However, his production has dipped recently as defenses have clearly made an effort to game plan for the dynamic wideout. He's topped 100 yards just once in his last six games, a mark he reached four times in his first six games. He also received only eight and nine targets, respectively, in the last two weeks. That's in stark contrast to his first 10 games, when he never had fewer than 11 targets.
How to Watch
When: 8:30 p.m. ET
Where: NRG Stadium, Houston
Announcers: Al Michaels, Cris Collinsworth, Michele Tafoya
Online: NBC Sports Live Extra
The Patriots are 3-point favorites and the over/under is 44.5, according to OddsShark.com.
Nearly all of the experts are expecting the Patriots to end their losing skid. Seven of the eight guys at CBS Sports are taking New England while the ESPN panel favors the road team 11-2. Here at SB Nation headquarters, all seven of our "human" experts are picking the Patriots, while the OddsShark computer is favoring the Texans.