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Tony Massarotti

Kings of the Hill: AFC is New England's to Lose

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The AFC belongs to the New England Patriots. There is simply no other way to say it. The conference is theirs to lose.

Tell you what: before anyone shoots back with the obvious responses, let’s do it for you. There’s a long way to go. Too much can still happen. What if Gronk gets hurt? But in the world of the NFL, especially, these are variables for all teams … which makes them constants. As surely as the Patriots offense would change without Rob Gronkowski, so, too, would the Denver Broncos offense change without Demaryius Thomas. Last time we checked, there wasn’t a person on the planet deemed to be indestructible, so we all know there are no guarantees.

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But on the field, what we know now, today, is this: the Patriots have played the other three division leaders in the AFC, both at home and on the road now, and they have bulldozed all of them. The Pats played the AFC North-leading Cincinnati Bengals in Week 5 at Gillette Stadium and rumbled to a 43-17 win. Four weeks later, the high-flying Denver Broncos came to Foxboro and got their doors blown off, too, 43-21. On Sunday, the Pats went to Indianapolis and deconstructed the Colts, claiming a 42-20 victory.

Combined score of those game: 128-58. That is the kind of thing the Patriots have not done against quality opponents since 2007, which just might have been New England’s last best chance to win a Super Bowl.

Let’s put that another way: when was the last time you felt this good about the Patriots ability to win games in different ways, to be this balanced? In the last three games, the Pats have had a defensive score against the Chicago Bears, a special teams score against the Broncos and four rushing touchdowns against the Colts. Meanwhile, the Pats have generally excelled in the passing game – on both sides of the ball – demonstrating the type of efficiency that they have all too often lacked.

Yes, it’s only Week 12. We all know that two teams can face one another multiple times in the same season and never play the same game. Results change. But before anyone makes the mistake of thinking this is all about how the Patriots are playing, it really has as much – or more – to do with where they’ve put themselves.

Atop the AFC hierarchy.

And more importantly: with a margin for error.

At the moment, thanks to their current six-game winning streak, the Patriots have a one-game advantage over the field in the AFC. Thanks to their head-to-head victories, they own tiebreaking edges over the Broncos, Bengals and Colts. That means the Patriots could lose one more game and still finish with the top seed in the conference no matter what each of those other clubs does.

Barring a three-way tie, the only team with a current tiebreaking advantage over the Patriots is the Kansas City Chiefs, who would need the Patriots to lose at least once while going 6-0 over the balance of the season to finish with the top spot in the AFC. Possible? Of course. But after facing the dreadful Oakland Raiders on Thursday, four of the Chiefs’ final five games are against the Arizona Cardinals (away), Broncos (home), Pittsburgh Steelers (away) and San Diego Chargers (home).

And then there is this: while the Chiefs possess the No. 4-ranked rushing attack in the NFL, their passing attack ranks 31st in the league. You read that correctly. 31st. More often than not, particularly in the AFC, recent history in the NFL has suggested that a potent passing attack is a prerequisite for winning the Super Bowl.

During the offseason, the Patriots made some very specific moves to improve their team – and almost all of them related to the passing game. Bradon Lafell and Tim Wright were brought in to give Tom Brady bigger targets, particularly in the red zone. Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner were added to the secondary, again to improve the skill, size and physicality in the passing game. The Patriots are now bigger and stronger when the ball is in the air, and the results have been showing.

Now New England has a firm grasp on the top seed in the AFC, which means home field throughout the postseason.

A trip to the Super Bowl certainly feels like theirs to lose, even with six weeks to go, even as the ball hangs in the air.