By Gregory Hunt
Heading into their bye week, the New England Patriots hold a 7-2 record, putting them in first place in the AFC East by two games over the New York Jets. If the playoffs started today, the Patriots would actually be the No. 2 seed in the AFC. The Kansas City Chiefs (9-0) and Denver Broncos (7-1) both hold better records than the Patriots, but because both of those teams reside in the AFC West, the team that doesn’t win that division will fall to the No. 5 seed.
There’s still a lot of football to be played, but the way things are shaping up, either Denver or Kansas City will probably be the No. 1 seed in the AFC, while New England will battle the Indianapolis Colts for the No. 2 seed. Denver and Kansas City have not yet played each other, but they will meet twice in the next four weeks. While New England enjoys its bye week, Indianapolis will host the 3-6 St. Louis Rams on Sunday. A victory by the Colts will give them a 7-2 record identical to New England’s.
However, the Cincinnati Bengals cannot be overlooked. A strong defense has carried that team to a 6-3 record, and they already have a victory against the Patriots. Should either the Patriots or the Colts falter late in the season, the Bengals would become a contender for the No. 2 seed.
The only other team that is a legitimate contender in the AFC is the Jets. Few people thought the team would be very good when quarterback Mark Sanchez went down with a shoulder injury, forcing rookie QB Geno Smith into action. Smith is not yet the kind of quarterback that can carry a team, but when the Jets’ running game is working well, he’s capable of making big plays. This, combined with a defense that’s ranked fourth in the AFC, makes them a threat to any of the elite teams in the conference.
As is the case with any team, injuries will play a factor in how the playoff picture plays out. For most of the first half of the season, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady was missing two of his primary targets, tight end Rob Gronkowski and wide receiver Danny Amendola. Both of them looked relatively healthy in New England’s recent win over the Pittsburgh Steelers, so by the time the Patriots meet the Carolina Panthers on Nov.18, they should be close to 100 percent.
New England will also look forward to the return of cornerback Aqib Talib, who has missed three weeks with a hip injury. Talib was a shutdown corner during the first part of the season, so without him the Patriots have needed to drop extra men into pass coverage, and this had made them more vulnerable to the run. New England’s run defense is currently ranked 30th in the NFL, so the Patriots won’t last long in the playoffs if this type of performance continues. The Patriots recently acquired former Philadelphia Eagles defensive tackle Isaac Sopoaga to replace the injured Vince Wilfork as the team’s interior run stopper. He played sparingly in the game against Pittsburgh, but expect to see more of him going forward.
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Gregory Hunt is a Boston native and a life-long fan of the Patriots, Red Sox, Bruins and Celtics. He’s also particularly fond of lacrosse, IndyCar racing and women’s college basketball. He currently works for Examiner.com where he serves as the Senior Manager of Content and Media Access. He also writes for Examiner.com as the New England Patriots Examiner. His work can be found on Examiner.com.