By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston

BOSTON (CBS) — The road has been paved for the Patriots to claim the top spot in the American Football Conference.

Sure, just as it was last week, it’s far too early to fully engage in a conversation about seeding and home-field advantage. But for one, we did it anyway a week ago, so we’re certainly doing it now. And secondly, taking a quick scan around that AFC, it’s difficult to spot any team that’s functioning on any level close to the Patriots at this point in time.

So, when the Chiefs jumped out to a 10-0 lead over the Texans on Sunday, it appeared as though the planets had all gotten back in line for a Patriots-Chiefs two-horse race. When that lead stretched to 17-3 by the end of the first quarter, the rout appeared to be on.

Alas, some sports happened, and the Texans stunned just about everybody by climbing back into that game, seizing a 23-17 lead before halftime and then recovering in the second half to score a game-winning touchdown in the fourth quarter.

Patrick Mahomes threw three touchdowns but was otherwise made to look human. He completed 54.3 percent of his passes for 273 yards, as the Chiefs gained just 309 yards as a team.

The Chiefs’ run defense was once again abysmal, allowing Carlos Hyde to go for 116 yards and a touchdown on 26 carries. Deshaun Watson ran for two touchdowns himself, gaining 42 yards on his 10 carries. Duke Johnson’s 34 yards on five carries gave the Texans a team total of 192 yards and three touchdowns on 41 carries, good for a 4.7-yard average.

Coaching appeared to be absent, too, when Chiefs safety Juan Thornhill decided to intercept a fourth-and-1 deep pass at the goal line instead of batting it down, giving the Chiefs possession at their own 20-yard line instead of their own 40-yard line with 32 seconds left in the half. Mahomes was strip-sacked on the Chiefs’ first play of the ensuing drive, and Houston recovered at the Kansas City 3-yard line; Watson ran into the end zone on the very next play.

In a game where officiating was … a bit odd, Andy Reid nevertheless made a poor decision to challenge a play where he believed the Texans committed defensive pass interference on a third-down incompletion. Despite the fact that the NFL has made it clear that anything short of a public mauling is not going to lead to a reversal (it’s only been among the biggest league-wide stories all season), Reid thought it prudent to waste a challenge and burn a timeout in the fourth quarter of a game that his team lead by just a single point.

He didn’t win the challenge. The Texans drained the final 5:03 of the game with an excruciating nine-play drive, concluding with a pair of kneeldowns following a fourth-down conversion.

Andy Reid (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

The Chiefs were flagged 16 times in Sunday’s loss (11 penalties were accepted), and they possessed the ball for just 20:12.

The loss for Kansas City likely won’t affect the Chiefs in their division, unless you believe the Raiders will go on some sort of tear. But in terms of the larger AFC picture, the implications are massive.

The Texans, at 4-2, now sit in that No. 2 seed, owners of a tiebreaker over Kansas City and Baltimore. The Patriots, of course, remain in the top spot with their 6-0 record.

The Patriots have head-to-head matchups with the Texans, Chiefs, and Ravens, which means they control their own fate with regard to tiebreaking scenarios.

Current AFC Standings
1. New England, 6-0
2. Houston, 4-2
3. Kansas City, 4-2
4. Baltimore, 4-2
5. Buffalo, 4-1
6. Oakland, 3-2

Patriots’ Opponents, Weeks 7-14
@ New York Jets (1-4)
vs. Cleveland (2-4)
@ Baltimore (4-2)
BYE
@ Philadelphia (3-3)
vs. Dallas (3-3)
vs. Kansas City (4-2)

Chiefs’ Opponents, Weeks 7-14
@ Denver (2-4)
vs. Green Bay (4-1)
vs. Minnesota (4-2)
@ Tennessee (2-4)
vs. L.A. Chargers (2-4)
BYE
vs. Oakland (3-2)
@ New England (6-0)

Texans’ Opponents, Weeks 7-14
@ Indianapolis (3-2)
vs. Oakland (3-2)
vs. Jacksonville (2-4)
BYE
@ Baltimore (4-2)
vs. Indianapolis (3-2)
vs. New England (6-0)
vs. Denver (2-4)

Ravens’ Opponents, Weeks 7-14
@ Seattle (5-1)
BYE
vs. New England (6-0)
@ Cincinnati (0-6)
vs. Houston (4-2)
@ L.A. Rams (3-3)
vs. San Francisco (5-0)
@ Buffalo (4-1)

So outside of the head-to-heads, the Patriots have a two-game lead over any and all AFC competition. Presumably, the Texans — who have lost to the Saints and Panthers — and the Ravens — who have lost to the Chiefs and Browns — will lose again. And with the Chiefs now losers in three of their last four home games — dating back to the AFC Championship Game — it appears safe to say that even the mighty Chiefs will finish the year with at least three blemishes on their final record.

All of which is to say that things continue to look up for Bill Belichick’s team. Last year at this time, the Patriots were 4-2, fending off the explosive Chiefs in a 43-40 battle on Sunday Night Football in Week 6. The win brought the Patriots to 4-2, while the 5-1 Chiefs were handed their first loss of the season.

Later in the year, the Chargers proved potent, too, when they went into Kansas City and won in a (referee-abetted) 29-28 victory on a cold Thursday night in Week 15.

It was evident then that if the Patriots were going to advance to Super Bowl LIII, they were going to have legitimate competition from within the conference, both from Kansas City and from Los Angeles. (The Patriots, of course, dispatched both in the postseason.)

This year? This year, thus far, it’s the Patriots, and then it’s everybody else.

You can email Michael Hurley or find him on Twitter @michaelFhurley.

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