Dave D'Onofrio's Patriots Notebook: Patriots put AFC East race out of reach
Actually, if New York was alleged to be New England's stiffest competition, Thursday made a case that the division was really out of reach for the three others before the race even began - but now the math makes it all but official. If Buffalo loses one of its next two games, and the Patriots win at Miami next Sunday, the East will belong to the Pats for the 10th time in 12 years.
And thus the focus can now turn to the conference.
In that picture the Patriots aren't in nearly as comfortable a position, and in fact they don't actually control their own destiny. Had the officials not mistakenly awarded the Texans a touchdown in Thanksgiving's early game, and Detroit had held on to beat Houston instead of losing in overtime, New England could earn a first-round bye simply by winning out.
But that's not what happened. The Texans survived, and thus the Patriots find themselves in a position where they'll need some help elsewhere if they're to avoid playing a wild-card game. That considered, here's a look at the conference's competition for a top-two seed and how the remaining weeks look for each of those clubs:
Houston, 10-1 (remaining games at Tennessee, at New England, Indianapolis, Minnesota, at Indianapolis): The Texans may be as balanced a team as there is in the NFL, ranking in the top five in terms of both points scored and points allowed, though they'll be challenged over the rest of their slate.
They should be able to handle the Titans, but the Patriots, Vikings and Colts (twice) all figure to be playing for something late in the season, and leave the aggregate winning percentage of Houston's remaining opponents at an impressive .588. Houston will likely need to play better than it has the three previous weeks to navigate the rest of the schedule unscathed - and if it fails to do so, a door could open for New England. Particularly if the Patriots can handle their business head to head in Foxborough.
Baltimore, 8-2 (at San Diego, Pittsburgh, at Washington, Denver, N.Y. Giants, at Cincinnati): The winning percentage of the teams awaiting the Ravens is .541, though it's the back half of the slate that's likely to decide whether Baltimore retains its hold on the No. 2 seed.
The Ravens should win at San Diego, should beat Pittsburgh if Ben Roethlisberger remains sidelined, and should beat Washington - even as good as Robert Griffin III has looked the past couple weeks. At that point, though, the Ravens get a couple of huge challenges at home from the brothers Manning - first Peyton's Broncos, then Eli's Giants - before finishing up by traveling to face a tough Bengals team in Cincinnati. That's a more difficult three-week stretch than remains for either the Texans or Patriots.
Keep in mind, though the Patriots begin today just a half game back of the Ravens, New England would lose a tiebreaker between the teams by virtue of Baltimore's Week 3 win.
New England, 8-3 (at Miami, Houston, San Francisco, at Jacksonville, Miami): On paper, the total numbers suggest the Patriots have an easier remaining schedule than either the Texans or Ravens because their combined winning percentage is .520. That's misleading, though, because of the way Jacksonville's 1-9 start skews the figures.
The fact of the matter is that if the Patriots don't beat both Houston and San Francisco - plus handle business in the other three games - they're not going to earn a bye. A fourth loss would mean Houston would have to drop three of five, including the game at Foxborough, and Baltimore would need to go no better than 3-3 the rest of the way. It's all possible, of course. But not likely.
Denver, 7-3 (at Kansas City, Tampa Bay, at Oakland, at Baltimore, Cleveland, Kansas City): If the Patriots do end up securing a bye, they'll likely look back on Week 5 as a crucial moment in that conquest - because there's a good chance they'd need to exercise the tiebreaker they gained by beating the Broncos that Sunday.
Denver's remaining foes have combined to go 21-39, amounting to a putrid .350 winning percentage that puts the Broncos in prime position to make a run at a top seed. They should beat the 1-9 Chiefs twice, and also easily handle Oakland and Cleveland. Tampa is hot, but the game is in Colorado. So really the only true test left is at Baltimore on Dec. 16.
One more thing for Patriots fans to consider for that game: If the Broncos were to beat the Ravens, it makes very real the possibility of New England, Denver and Baltimore finishing in a three-way tie, which would be broken first according to conference record. Currently the Patriots and Ravens are both 7-1, while the Broncos are 5-2.
Pittsburgh, 6-4 (at Cleveland, at Baltimore, San Diego, at Dallas, Cincinnati, Cleveland) and Indianapolis, 6-4 (Buffalo, at Detroit, Tennessee, at Houston, at Kansas City, Houston): Even with their catastrophic quarterbacking situation, and general injury woes, the Steelers probably have enough talent to still make the playoffs. Indy is in decent position, too, although those two remaining games against Houston could open the door for 5-5 Cincinnati.
However, as far as challenging for a bye is concerned, these teams have almost no chance. Only division winners are eligible for byes, and it's difficult to envision the Steelers catching the Ravens or the Colts topping the Texans.
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STAT OF THE WEEK: The Patriots have scored 190 points in the past four weeks. That's nine more than they scored in the entire 1990 season, and brings them to 407 for the season. At 37 points per game they're on pace for 592 this year. The all-time NFL record is 589, set by the Pats in 2007.
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Dave D';Onofrio covers Boston sports for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @davedonofrio