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Dave D'Onofrio's Patriots Notebook: New England will have to earn a bye
San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Randy Moss (84) catches a touchdown during the first quarter against the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium. (Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports)
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- IF THE Patriots are going to bypass the wild-card round in the upcoming AFC playoffs, they're certainly going to have to earn it.
The Denver Broncos continue to make sure of that, extending football's longest winning streak to nine games by easily beating the Ravens in Baltimore early Sunday afternoon - and sending the Pats into that night's game against the 49ers knowing they faced a bit of pressure if they wanted to maintain control of their own destiny in the fight for one of the conference's top two seeds.
Had the Ravens stunted the Broncos' hot streak, the Patriots could've taken the field in a position where its hopes of a bye had a pretty good chance of surviving a loss in one of the regular season's final three games. But because injury-ravaged Baltimore couldn't stop Knowshon Moreno (118 yards), and couldn't establish much of anything offensively (going 1-for-12 on third down and netting just 278 yards), New England stepped onto the rain-soaked turf of Gillette Stadium with a pretty good idea that if it didn't put together a perfect finish it was going to be right back here on the first weekend in January.
New England holds the tiebreaker over Denver by virtue of its head-to-head victory in October, though the Broncos haven't lost since then, so they're already 11-3. Now they go home for the final two weeks, where they're 5-1, and where they'll welcome the Browns (5-9) then the Chiefs (2-12). Barring an upset, the Broncos seem bound to finish 13-3.
And so unless the unforeseen happened, the Patriots went into Sunday knowing they'd probably need to beat the 49ers, Jaguars and Miami in order to enact their tiebreaker advantage.
The good thing about the Broncos' 34-17 win from a Patriots' perspective, though, was that it likely removed the Ravens from contention for a bye, and diminished the chances of Baltimore and New England will finish in a two-way tie.
The Ravens own that tiebreaker, because they beat the Patriots in September, but after three straight losses Baltimore is 9-5, and so a tie with the Pats would probably only be to decide the Nos. 3 and 4 seeds. And given the good chance that the No. 4 seed is likely on a path to face Indianapolis, then Houston - two teams the Pats have hammered this season - that's not even a tie New England would mind losing.
To their credit, the Texans responded to Monday night's humbling loss at Foxborough by handling their business against the Colts in another early Sunday contest that kept the pressure on the Patriots. By improving to 12-2, Houston remained in control of the top seed and the home-field advantage that accompanies it. The Texans still have to face Adrian Peterson's Vikings before traveling to Indianapolis, so that seed is far from secure, but the win leaves them in good position.
And left the Patriots with another reminder that they're going to have to earn every advantage they hope to get.
THE PATRIOTS paid tribute to the victims of last Friday's mass shooting at Sandy Brook Elementary School by wearing on their helmets a decal that featured a black ribbon next to the town seal of Newtown, Conn. In addition, the team held a moment of silence before the game, during which it lit 26 flares in homage to the students and teachers who were killed in the attack.
Priot to the contest there were whispers that kickoff might be delayed in Foxborough so that NBC could broadcast President Obama's remarks live as he spoke from a vigil in Connecticut. However, when it was determined the President's speech would begin after 8:30 p.m., the decision was made to temporarily move the game to one of NBC's alternate channels and proceed with the start of the game as scheduled.
AFTER RETURNING to practice on Friday for the first time since breaking his forearm in Week 11, and being officially designated as "questionable," Rob Gronkowski was among the Patriots' inactive players Sunday night.
Joining him were safety Derrick Martin, linebacker Tracy White, offensive lineman Marcus Zusevics as well as defensive linemen Jake Bequette and Ron Brace. Cornerbacks Aqib Talib and Alfonzo Dennard, both of whom left last week's win against the Texans with injuries, both started for New England.
On the other side, Super Bowl XLVI hero Mario Manningham was out for the 49ers, and replaced in the San Francisco starting lineup by old friend Randy Moss. The ex-Patriot shared a handshake with New England owner Robert Kraft on the field during pre-game warm-ups.
NEW ENGLAND'S honorary captains for the contest were Pro Football Hall of Famers Andre Tippett, Curtis Martin and Mike Haynes - who said he'd love to play in today's pass-happy NFL, in large part because of the challenges and opportunities it would create for a cornerback like himself.
"I think that makes it more exciting for the fans, and it would've made it a lot more exciting for me, too," Haynes said. "I would've loved to have been playing. Oh yeah. Heck yeah. In that situation you know the ball is going to be in the air, so even if they didn't throw to my man, I might get a tip when they were throwing it to your man. It would've been a lot of fun."
The loudest cheers went to Martin, who remains popular in New England despite leaving the Patriots for the Jets. And the love is mutual.
"There's a lot of envy, but it's all good," Martin said. "I envy it but I wish them well. Those are the only two teams that I'm fan of, the Patriots and the Jets."
Dave D'Onofrio covers the Patriots for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is email@example.com.