The Patriots took care of business Sunday night in Houston with a dominating and much needed road victory over the Texans 27-6. New England improved to 11-2 and with the loss of the Miami Dolphins to the New York Giants last night on Monday Night Football the Patriots clinched the AFC East division. Tom Brady has now led the Pats to AFC East division titles in 13 of the 14 healthy seasons he has had. The battle for the top seed in the conference playoffs also had a shake up with the Cinncinati Bengals and Denver Broncos both losing leaving the Pats alone at the top. This means, with three games left in the regular season, the Patriots control their own destiny, and by winning out will have the number one seed earning them a first round bye and home field advantage. The bye is particularly helpful for an extremely banged up Patriots team. Home field advantage is crucial as the Pats attempt to pave the road to Super Bowl Fifty.
New England has been nearly unbeatable at home, particularly in the playoffs, and have had great success in using the number one seed to their advantage. They welcome teams to frozen Gillette Stadium in January. Super Bowl history shows a top seeded Patriots team is a force to be reckoned with. At the very beginning of the Tom Brady era in 2001 the Patriots had a two seed and used a snow covered field (and the birth of the Tuck Rule) to beat out the Oakland Raiders before advancing to beat the Steelers at Heinz Field on their way to a Super Bowl win at the SuperDome against the Greatest Show on Turf, the St. Louis Rams. In 2003 New England used a top seed to host Tennessee and Indinanapolis at Gillette Stadium, they both left in defeat as the Patriots went on to beat the NFC represenative Carolina Panthers in Houston. The defending champs used another two seed in 2004, again beating Indy (always a Patriots fan’s favorite win), winning again at Pittsburgh before taking their third Super Bowl title in four years over the Eagles of Philadelphia. Although not the fondest memories in New England, it is also important to highlight the 2007 and 2012 playoff seasons where the Patriots used number one seeds in the AFC to catapult them to Super Bowl appearences. In 2014 the Patriots solidified the dynasty by winning another Super Bowl in the final seconds of an unforgettable game to claim their fourth of the Brady/Belichick Era. Guess what? It was a number one seed that allowed the Patriots home field advantage in a tight win over Baltimore before destroying Andrew Luck and Indianapolis at Gillette in what would later become the DeflateGate Saga. In the six Super Bowl appearances since 2001 four times the Patriots have had the number one seed in the AFC to help them get there.
The only two teams really within striking distance of New England are Cinncinati and Denver and both teams have their own struggles coming off losses. Cinncinati quarterback Andy Dalton has a fractured thumb that apparently won’t require surgery, however, his effectiveness is in question as well as his “week to week” status. Dalton’s back up is former Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron who didn’t look bad against the Steelers but two interceptions, one that sealed the victory for Pittsburgh, did not help the cause. The Broncos have to decide whether they will go back to the seemingly ancient Peyton Manning for the final three games of the season or stick with Brock Osweiler who had success against the Pats but lost this past week 15-12 to the Raiders and did not look great doing so.
For the Patriots the Tennessee Titans and then two division opponents in the Jets and Dolphins are all that stand in the way of the AFC playoffs running, once again, through New England. For Pats fans the Denver game was a tough loss. The home loss to Eagles was out of character and a disgraceful performance, particularly on special teams, which, if you have ever listened to a Bill Belichick press conference you would know it is imperative to execute in all three phases off the game: offense, defense and special teams. It appears now with a solid win against Houston and a stroke of luck with competitors falling down this week, that the Pats are back in business. If they can win out and, equally if not more so important, get healthy, they have a real shot at a deep playoff run.