The New England Patriots are officially the best team in the AFC.
With a bullet.
There is no, "Yeah, but the Bengals aren't who we thought they were." No, "How could we have overrated the Bears so drastically?" There will be no pointing to Peyton Manning's record in cold weather to try and temper the preponderance of the statement.
There are no parameters and clarifications to make in calling the Patriots the best team in the AFC.
They just are.
While the carnage was falling all around them in the conference on Sunday, the Patriots cemented their position as the team to beat with a not-so-easy, yet eye-opening, 42-20 victory over the Indianapolis Colts. Much of it was thanks to running back Jonas Gray’s remarkable evening (199 yards, four touchdowns), which helped Patriots fans overlook an atypical ugly first half for Tom Brady, who rebounded with two touchdowns in the second half to match his pair of first-half interceptions.
Meanwhile, the Patriots' defense allowed a few big plays out of Andrew Luck and Co. but still shut down one of the NFL’s most potent air attacks and limited the Colts to only 20 points by completely eliminating the run game, which they watched their own offense delight in so gleefully on the legs of Gray.
Just like that, the Patriots have won six straight games after starting the season 2-2. They are 8-2 and now a game up on the Denver Broncos, 22-7 losers to the St. Louis Rams on Sunday, with the head-to-head record in hand for home-field throughout the playoffs. They now own a 1 1/2-game lead on the Bengals for at least one of the first-round byes.
The Broncos lost. The Browns lost. The Colts, obviously, lost as well.
The Patriots were indeed the only AFC division leader to win on Sunday. In fact, the Patriots and Arizona Cardinals, now 9-1 on the season, were the only two division leaders in the NFL to emerge from Sunday victorious.
Arizona currently holds the top spot in the NFC, two games up on the Lions, whom they beat Sunday, 14-6, in advance of Detroit’s visit to Foxborough next weekend.
The Cardinals are trying to become the first franchise to host a Super Bowl and actually play in it. The Patriots want to get back to Glendale, Ariz., site of the most stunning defeat in franchise history, and make some semblance of amends.
Still, the Cardinals do have the oncoming, high-flying Green Bay Packers (108 points the last two weeks combined) to deal with, just as the Patriots will have in a fortnight’s time, a Thanksgiving weekend showdown at Lambeau Field that is shaping up to be the Game of the Year, if not a Super Bowl preview.
If the AFC didn’t exactly see a shift in power during Week 11, it at least announced some more serious players to the list of contenders.
The Kansas City Chiefs made a statement against the Seattle Seahawks and pulled into a tie with the Broncos for the AFC West lead, but are only the fifth seed with their 1-1 division record. The Miami Dolphins, at 6-4, are still in playoff position, with the sixth seed and a mid-December showdown at Gillette looming.
The Ravens, Steelers, Browns, and maybe even the Texans, all still have hope to compete for a playoff spot in the season’s final six weeks.
For the Patriots, that’s amateur hour. Maybe the scraps were something Bill Belichick’s team might have spent some time thinking about in the days when the New York Jets posed some sort of divisional threat, or in the unfortunate circumstance that Rob Gronkowski went down for any unforeseeable period of time.
These Patriots? Please.
They’re back at the top where they’re supposed to be. Where they always used to be during the years of their dynasty.
New England easily could have marched into Indianapolis, dropped the game, and not faced too much of an insurmountable hurdle. They, the Colts, Broncos, and Chiefs would all have been 7-3 with plenty of time to sort things out. Instead, the Patriots improved to 3-2 on the road this season by winning their most significant game away from Gillette Stadium in, yes, years.
Think these Patriots would have traveled to St. Louis and laid an egg under the arch? Hardly.
Instead, they just went out and whipped the other three AFC division leaders by a total of 70 points over the course of just over a month.
Oct. 5, 43-17 over the Bengals.
Nov. 2, 43-21 over the Broncos.
Nov. 16, 42-20 over the Colts.
The Pats won’t play another conference game until Dec. 7, three weeks from now, against the San Diego Chargers. That game will kick off a quartet of AFC contests, including the final three against division opponents. They have to be considered the best team in the AFC after what we’ve witnessed the last six weeks, and if they can somehow walk away from Green Bay with a victory, many will also see them as the best team in the NFL.
The only threat to New England’s home field these days? The Chiefs, who have won five in a row and own the head-to-head against the Patriots, but will still need to beat the Broncos in two weeks (a game following New England-Green Bay; might be a fun afternoon, no?) in order to have a shot at winning the AFC West.
Kansas City’s schedule though -- three of its last four games are against the Cardinals, Steelers, and Chargers while the Pats get the Jets and Bills to close out the year, both of whom will long have since quit for the season by then.
As it stands now, the Patriots are halfway through the grueling stretch of six games that most figured would make or break them.
They’ve only outscored the Chicago Bears, Broncos, and Colts by a grand total of 136-64.
Here come the Lions, Packers, and Chargers.
“Grueling” doesn’t mean what it used to, I suppose.
The Patriots are once again the feared, the unsolvable beast that they were perhaps once upon a time.
Especially on a Sunday that proved how much weaker everybody else truly is, one truth rang louder than any other.
They are the team to beat now. In January. In February.
And damn it if anyone can figure out just how to do that these days.
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