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Bye the way, playoff spots limited

The Patriots returned to Gillette Stadium Monday afternoon following a three-day, bye-week break over the weekend. The team will begin preparations for a second part of the season that includes three straight road games, but will kick off with a return to its home field this Sunday at 4:15 p.m. to face the Broncos.

But while much of the New England organization spent the weekend regrouping, recharging and revising, the rest of the NFL had an action-packed Sunday that further blurred the line between the elite and the lower class of the league. Teams like Buffalo and San Diego used Sunday to reaffirm their status as rebuilt franchises, while teams such as Oakland and Kansas City lost tough games to fall back into the parity-filled mix that is the NFL.

As of Monday there were 12 teams with a better record than the Patriots, 15 with a worse record and four others sitting right at the .500 mark with New England at 3-3. In the AFC there are six teams with a better record, seven worse and two at 3-3. As Patriots Head Coach Bill Belichick told his players last week, right now they are an average team in the NFL, just as their record shows.

The thing to remember though in the realigned, four-division format of the NFL is the fact that teams are now battling for just two Wild Card spots rather than the former three. After the four division winners are crowned, there will likely be a large group of teams somewhere in the vicinity of 10 wins vying for the final two playoff spots in each conference.

And while it is obviously too early to start any serious playoff talk, it is looking like the runner-ups the AFC West and the AFC East will be doing battle for those two Wild Card spots. After this weekend's action that saw the Chargers upset the Raiders 27-21 in overtime and the Broncos outlast the Chiefs 37-34 in overtime, it appears that the West might just be the best division in football.

In the East, with Buffalo's upset of a banged up Miami team, the Bills now sit just a game behind the 5-2 Dolphins. In both the North and South it appears as though that the only likely playoff teams will be the division winners, with the Ravens and Colts currently sitting atop the divisions respectively.

As it stands now the Patriots would be on the outside of the playoff picture. Not only are there two teams ahead of them in the division, but three teams in the West have a better record as well. It may be too early to even consider the playoffs, but team's can't rely on winning the final nine games of the regular season to catapult into the playoffs. With what is shaping up to be a highly competitive AFC playoff race, wins will be at a premium from here on out.

Regardless of how things are shaping up across the AFC, the most import thing for the Patriots right now is to end the team's current three game losing streak. With four games remaining within the division and three others with conference opponents, the old saying appears to ring true that the team has its fortunes in its own hands. But so does the rest of the AFC at this point, even the 0-6 Bengals could run the table and go 10-6.


Ryan Benjamin, a long snapper who has spent time in each of the last two Patriots training camps, is now playing with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The former South Florida player who was cut by New England on Aug. 27 handled the Bucs long snapping in the team's loss at Philadelphia on Sunday. … The Dolphins helped to solidify an injury-riddled receiving corps by signing future Hall of Famer Cris Carter on Monday. Carter had been working as an NFL analyst, but should help the Miami offense immediately. Carter had 73 catches for 871 yards and six touchdowns last season with the Vikings. His career totals place him as the NFL's second all-time leading receiver with 1,093 receptions for 13,833 yards and 129 touchdowns. … The Patriots will return to Gillette Stadium to face the 5-2 Denver Broncos this coming Sunday. Since the NFL's inception of the bye week in 1990 New England has a 5-8 record in games following the bye. Bill Belichick-coached teams have an 8-5 record following the bye and have won six of their last eight.

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