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December 17. 2013 12:27AM

Dave D'Onofrio's Patriots Notebook: Securing bye critical to Pats' chances

AS EVIDENT as the effects of their absences have become, there's really nothing the Patriots can do at this point about not having Rob Gronkowski, Jerod Mayo, Vince Wilfork and Sebastian Vollmer in uniform.

Sure, it would have been nice if Tom Brady could have targeted Gronk in the red zone Sunday. Or if Mayo rather than Dont'a Hightower could have been chasing running backs in coverage. Or if the interior of a defensive line missing not only Wilfork but also Tommy Kelly could have been a bit tighter. Or if New England could have used its running backs as more than just extra help for a Vollmer-less offensive line on passing plays.

Had their first-choice personnel been available, the Patriots might have managed to beat the Dolphins Sunday, instead of losing, 24-20. The division race might be over. The Pats might still control ownership of the AFC's No. 1 seed. We might be talking about another scintillating comeback by Brady's bunch.

But their first-choice personnel wasn't available. And it won't be again this season.

Gronkowski, Mayo, Wilfork and Vollmer are done for the year due to injury, as are a couple others who could have made an impact Sunday. There's no sense in lamenting their losses, or wondering what might've been because that only gets in the way of determining what will be.

Moving forward, the only real relevance of all those injuries is that they put the Pats in a position where they'll need every advantage they can get for whatever remains of their season. So that's what is most important for New England at this point: finding a way, given the present realities, to give itself the best chance come January.

And that means somehow securing a bye, and avoiding travel for as long as possible in the upcoming playoffs.

"I don't really know or care anything about that," coach Bill Belichick said Sunday when asked about how his team's loss to the Dolphins would potentially affect its seeding.

He should. Because where it's seeded could mean everything about his team's chances of competing for a championship.

Currently, thanks to the Steelers beating the Bengals later Sunday, the Patriots are slotted as the AFC's No. 2 seed with two weeks remaining in the regular season. If they manage to hold that spot, New England will be able to sit back during Wild Card Weekend and await the arrival of an opponent forced to win their way to Gillette Stadium.

There are no guarantees in that scenario, as the Jets and Ravens proved by winning divisional-round games at Foxborough in two of the past four seasons. But it's certainly more appealing than the alternative, which comes if the Patriots slide out of the No. 2 slot.

Assuming they win or the Dolphins lose over the last two weeks, and they're the East champs, the Patriots would as the No. 3 or 4 seed host either the Chiefs (who — don't look now — have scored the second-most points, while allowing the fewest in the AFC) or whichever team lays claim to the final wild-card spot. Be it the Ravens, Dolphins or Chargers, that team will be plenty dangerous.

Only then, if the Pats get by a home divisional game, do things really get difficult. Next the Patriots would need visit Denver, or whichever team overtakes them for the second seed — and that's particularly problematic because New England has yet to prove itself capable of winning on the road against a playoff-caliber foe.

Their loss at Miami dropped the Pats to 3-4 as visitors this season, with their three road victories coming against a trio of teams (Buffalo, Atlanta and Houston) that have gone a combined 11-31. Those wins over the Bills and Texans required late-game field goals, while the losses at Cincinnati, New York (Jets), Carolina and now Miami, meanwhile, all ended with New England coming up one play short of pulling out a victory — all of which underscores the importance of the Patriots putting giving themselves the best possibility to win.

As beat up as they may, as inconsistently as they've played this season, they still, absolutely, have a chance. They've yet to lose by more than a single score. They've beaten the conference's presumptive top seed. They've displayed the mental toughness that's a prerequisite for winning in December and beyond. They've shown an impressive resolve. They still have Brady. They still have Belichick.

Those assets haven't always translated into victories on the road, but at home that combination has rendered a record of 7-0. So if the Patriots can just find a way to stay in Foxborough through the divisional round, they should at least be favored. And then if winning that forces them to fly — well, in one game against a flawed foe, anything can happen.

Here's a look at what lies ahead for the Patriots and their opposition for the second seed:

Patriots (10-4; remaining schedule, at Baltimore, vs. Buffalo): Win once and the East is theirs. Win twice and they get a bye. Beating the Ravens will be tough, but it would be a big-time statement about their ability to overcome adversity, given the circumstances and what's on the line.• Bengals (9-5; vs. Minnesota, vs. Baltimore): The Bengals looked bad in Pittsburgh on Sunday night, and while they should take care of business against the Vikings, the more desperate the Ravens are, the more dangerous they will be in the finale.

Colts (9-5; at Kansas City, vs. Jacksonville): Indianapolis has a big test in Week 16 and has looked vulnerable lately, but if the Colts win out while New England splits, the Colts would have the tiebreaker advantage over the Patriots if both finish 11-5 (based on a 9-3 AFC mark for Indianapolis, vs. New England's 8-4). So if the Pats go 1-1 while the Bengals and Colts both go 2-0, New England would be the No. 4 seed — probably hosting KC in the divisional round, with the winner going to Denver.

Dolphins (8-6; at Buffalo, vs. New York Jets): They need two wins plus two Patriots losses to win the division. Not likely — but not impossible, either. It's worth pointing out, too, that they have a winning record (4-3) on the road. They're a legitimate threat.• Ravens (7-6 entering Monday night vs. Detroit; vs. Patriots, at Bengals): With three games to go, Baltimore knew that by winning out it would win the North. The defending Super Bowl champions are flawed, but the rest of the AFC would just assume they're on the golf course by New Year's Day.

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Dave D'Onofrio covers the Patriots for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. Email him at ddonof13@gmail.com.


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