The Patriots still must take care of business in their final two home games in order to secure a first-round bye (and perhaps the No. 1 seed in the playoffs), but last week's win in Denver did clinch the AFC East title. AFC North rivals Pittsburgh and Baltimore have also qualified for the postseason, as has AFC South champion Houston.
New England can claim the top spot with a pair of wins (or with losses by some combination of the other playoff teams) and therefore set itself up to stay home for the entire playoffs. Obviously that was the case a year ago when the top-seeded Patriots fell at home to the Jets in the divisional playoffs.
But that was 2010. Things are different all around the league and the obvious question to ask is, have things changed for the Patriots?
With that in mind this week's Samsonite Make Your Case question this week asks
Are the Patriots in the best position to win the AFC?
PFW's Paul Perillo says ...
While there are no guarantees, the Patriots are in the best position to make it to their fifth Super Bowl of the Bill Belichick/Tom Brady era. For starters, they are probably the healthiest team of all the contenders, certainly more so than Houston and Pittsburgh, who are both dealing with significant injuries to their quarterbacks. Second, they'll be playing at home, and even though that wasn't much of an advantage during the last two postseasons it's still a sizable edge.
Brady is once again at the top of his game and he now has two explosive tight ends working at the top of theirs as well. Last year Aaron Hernandez was banged up heading into the playoffs and Rob Gronkowski wasn't anywhere near the playmaker he is today. Also, Wes Welker is much more explosive than he was a year ago when he was coming off a torn ACL.
The defense is a definite concern, but the group is finding ways to force some turnovers and make life difficult in the red zone. Those are pretty important factors for success in the playoffs, especially when augmented by a productive offense that will be hard to contain in January.
Again, there are no certainties when it comes to playoff football, but right now I like the Patriots chances against any of the other playoff contenders.
PFW's Andy Hart says ...
This may be the hardest question I've had to answer in this space all season. On one hand I look at the flaws of the other teams in the AFC and find it hard to say any team in the mix is ready to make a Super Bowl run. That's especially true when you compare quarterbacks. Tom Brady is rolling through another December while Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger is gimpy, Joe Flacco remains a major question mark in Baltimore, Houston lost its starter and backup and any other quarterback that makes it to January will fail to measure up to No. 12.
But then I turn my attention to the New England defense. It's still worse than any I've ever seen in New England. It gives up too many yards and is only middle of the pack in points allowed despite playing a litany of backup and low-level quarterbacks in recent weeks. So while the Patriots score 30-plus points a game, they generally give up 20-plus. In the postseason history often shows us that even the most productive of regular season offenses takes a step back in January in terms of scoring points. Defenses in the postseason more often live up to their reputations, meaning the good ones play well and the bad ones get exposed for all to see. So what happens if the Patriots score fewer points and give up more? That's easy, they lose.
What's worse is the defense lost its best player this season - Andre Carter - and will continue to be a work in progress right up till and into the postseason. And my final concern with the defense is a lack of true playmakers. One way of overcoming yards allowed and questionable talent on defense is to come up with a few game-changing plays. But who can be counted on to make those? Kyle Arrington has seven interceptions, but is he really an elite playmaker?
The Patriots have an offense that could beat anybody and a defense that could lose to almost anybody. That leaves me very dubious that even with a No. 1 seed and home field advantage that New England can put together consecutive victorious games against playoff competition. Will they dispatch teams like Denver or Houston? Probably. But how about the more well-rounded, defensive-minded Steelers or Ravens? Doubtful.
In this crazy year of flaw-filled playoff competition, anyone could make a run to Indy. I just don't think the Patriots are truly the most likely team to script such a story as constructed.
Now it's the fans turn to cast their vote in this week's Samsonite Make Your Case Poll question.