By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Injuries always happen in sports, especially a violent one like football (and especially when players are forced to play on a Thursday after playing on a Sunday). So while nobody celebrated the knee injury for Patrick Mahomes this week, it nevertheless presented an opportunity for Bill O’Brien and the Houston Texans.
That opportunity: Beat the Colts, stay in first place in the AFC South, and move past the Chiefs in the conference standings. That second spot in the AFC is critical, as it obviously provides a team with a first-round playoff bye.
Alas, the opportunity was not exactly taken advantage of by the Texans, as they never once held a lead, falling behind 28-16 late in the third quarter and eventually losing 30-23 in Indy.
As a result, the Texans are now 4-3, the Colts are now 4-2, the Chiefs are 5-2, and the path to the No. 1 seed in the AFC has gotten even easier for the undefeated New England Patriots.
Things continue to come up Patriots.
But … also … it’s not.
The Patriots are 6-0, and though their strength of schedule is about to get a whole lot tougher, they appear destined to finish the year with a 14-2 record. Perhaps it’s better by a game, perhaps it’s worse by a game, but given the historic dominance of their defense, it seems truly challenging to map out a way for the Patriots to post a record as bad as 6-4 from this point forward.
Likewise, with Mahomes out for at least three games (but likely four), the Chiefs and their very questionable defense have to face a red-hot Aaron Rodgers and the 6-1 Green Bay Packers next week. Then they have to face the surprising 5-2 Vikings the week after that. They then head to Tennessee to face an aggressive defense, followed with a trip to Mexico City to face the Chargers.
With some combination of Matt Moore, Chad Henne and/or Kyle Shurmur under center for the Chiefs … it’s not easy to imagine Kansas City coming out of that stretch with a record better than 2-2. The Chiefs already have two losses on the year, so dropping to four losses on the season before Mahomes even returns (and before the Chiefs travel to Foxboro to play against the Patriots in Week 14) could end their hopes of securing home-field advantage before Thanksgiving.
Interestingly enough, the Bills at 5-1 are the only team that currently “threatens” the Patriots atop the AFC. Yet considering the Bills’ schedule has been just as easy as the Patriots’, and considering the Patriots handled the Bills in Buffalo, that threat does not appear real at this moment in time.
Technically, the Colts represent the same challenge in the AFC as the Texans. They had two losses entering Sunday, and they also had an impressive road victory in Kansas City under their belts. Yet Indy’s losses to the dreadful Chargers and mediocre Raiders have thus far kept the Colts out of serious discussions for the top two spots in the conference.
Long story short: The Chiefs, Colts and Ravens already have two losses, and the Texans already have three. Unless you think Buffalo will sustain its current winning clip despite the 25th-ranked scoring offense, then it’s fair to surmise that the Patriots can go 13-3 or possibly even 12-4 while still gliding comfortably into the No. 1 seed in the AFC.
None of this is to say that the Patriots have secured anything. With head-to-heads still awaiting against Houston, Kansas City and Baltimore, there’s still quite a bit to prove. But with the rest of their competition already carrying at least two losses into Week 8, the Patriots have a massive head start on the field.
Fortunately for the Chiefs, Colts, Texans and Ravens, two teams from the same division cannot both secure first-round byes. That leaves the No. 2 seed up for grabs over the final 10 weeks of the season.
But with more than half of the year remaining, it would take a collapse of epic proportions for Bill Belichick’s and Tom Brady’s team to fall short of ensuring that the road to Super Bowl LIV goes through Foxboro.