CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick flashed a couple of smiles. He handed out flattering compliments -- one going to a rookie. And he even cracked a joke.
When it comes to postgame news conferences, this was as happy as Belichick has been in some time, and why not? Backed by a strong defensive performance that helped overcome a slow offensive start, his Patriots had just thoroughly defeated the Carolina Panthers by a score of 24-6 at Bank of America Stadium on Sunday.
Better yet, the Patriots have turned their season around with three straight wins, morphing from a 2-4 team that looked like it might be heading in the wrong direction to a 5-4 playoff contender in the wide-open AFC.
“I thought it was a good effort by our team -- players and coaches; they did a good job rallying from the trip out to California [last week where they beat the Los Angeles Chargers],” Belichick said. “They came out and played with good energy. We’ll just keep trying to string these weeks together.”
It was a notable pivot point in the big picture. According to ESPN’s Football Power Index, the Patriots improved their odds for qualifying for the postseason to 62% with the win. Their odds would have dropped to 39% with a loss.
Furthermore, the Buffalo Bills’ surprising 9-6 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars on Sunday tightens the AFC East standings. The Bills (5-3) remain on top, but the Patriots are a half-game behind, with the New York Jets (2-6) and Miami Dolphins (2-7) further back in the pack.
The Patriots have two games remaining against the Bills -- a Monday night game Dec. 6 in Orchard Park, New York, and a home game Dec. 26.
“We’re not really focused on any of that,” center and captain David Andrews said. “We’ve been working hard each week. I think we’ve been seeing the fruits of that labor. We just have to keep doing that.”
The next challenge is a home game against the Cleveland Browns (5-4) next Sunday, with the Browns coming off an impressive 41-16 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday.
There are significant injury concerns for the Patriots, with running backs Damien Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson leaving Sunday’s win with head injuries, which means they are presumably in the concussion protocol. That could threaten their availability for Sunday’s game against the Browns.
“You never want to see anyone get dinged up or hurt. We’ll see how they go through the week,” Andrews said. “They’re tough as nails. They’re a big asset to this football team.”
But those concerns didn’t overshadow a chipper Belichick after the game.
He marveled at linebacker Jamie Collins’ interception in the third quarter.
“I don’t know how many players in the league could make that play, not very many. It was a tremendous play. Just the catch -- he’s 5 yards away from the quarterback and he threw it as hard as he could,” Belichick said with a chuckle.
He joked about cornerback J.C. Jackson’s two-interception game, which included an 88-yard return for a touchdown -- a performance that came after he missed two days of practice with strep throat.
“I talked to him about that. I hope that’s not a sign of things to come -- to think we don’t have to practice and go out and be a star of the game,” Belichick said with a smile.
And then he tossed some bouquets at rookie defensive tackle Christian Barmore, the 6-foot-5, 310-pound second-round pick from Alabama who batted down two passes and was buzzing all over the field, at one point flying through the air to join a pile.
“I got to give that kid a lot of credit,” Belichick said, in praise that seldom goes to rookies. “He comes in early. He stays late. He's a big man. He’s really applied himself and gotten better and better every week.”
So, too, has Belichick’s team.
Three weeks ago, the Patriots were 2-4 and several players said they believed they were better than the record indicated. They’ve since proved that to be the case.
"It's a long season," Collins said. "It don't matter how you start, it's how you finish. It's how you go through what you're going through and coming out the other side. Guys don't blink over here."