Last week's script couldn't have been written any better. With the exception of losing Andre Carter for the season, it seemed everything that could have gone right for New England did. First and foremost the Patriots beat the Broncos, in Denver, in a very high-profile game. The Jets, Steelers, Ravens and Texans all lost and the Packers broke their undefeated win-streak before they could reach the Patriots 21-game win-streak record from 2003-04 or their undefeated regular season record from 2007. All good, and it gets even better.
A Patriots win on Christmas Eve keeps them on track for earning homefield advantage throughout the playoffs -- but everyone will have to have their heads in the game to pull it off. Despite Miami's 5-9 record, this isn't the same Dolphins team Brady & Co. steamrolled in Week 1. As Rob Gronkowski so eloquently explained it,
"The big difference is that first I think that they went 0-8 and now they're on fire."
The experts' average ranking of the Patriots at 3rd in the NFL smells about right. Debates have already been started on if the Patriots finish with the number 1 seed, does that make them the best team in the AFC? It's a legitimate question because so far 2011 has been the year of "Any Given Sunday" and right now, the number one team in the conference will be the Patriots only if they take care of business this week and next.Brian Billick (Fox Sports) ranks them 2nd: The Patriots defense got sliced and diced in the first quarter against the Broncos, but like a good team does, New England made the necessary adjustments and held Denver to just 10 points in the final three. Losing DE Andre Carter will really impact the already questionable Patriots' pass rush, but anytime you can score 41 points you are still in pretty good shape.
Vinnie Iyer (The Sporting News) ranks them 2nd: Christmas wish: A recognized Aaron Hernandez.. Rob Gronkowski has gotten more attention because of his touchdown explosion, but Hernandez is also a rare athlete for the position. It's pick your poison with the Pats.
Peter King (SI) ranks them 3rd: After looking terrible against the run in the first 10 minutes (133 rushing yards by Denver), the Pats settled down and played effectively on defense, despite losing valuable pass-rusher Andre Carter, probably for the year with a quad injury.
Pro Football Weekly ranks them3rd: Offense rolls, but losing Andre Carter a brutal blow to "D."
Elliot Harrison (NFL.com) ranks them 3rd: New England loses its most steady defensive player in Andre Carter. Considering this is the league's 32nd-ranked defense, as in the worst, that's not good. Carter is a good, not great, player who contributed 10 sacks to the cause this season. Bill Belichick could use those this time of year, much like in 2010.
WEEI ranks them 3rd: The Patriots offense once again showed how versatile it is. Aaron Hernandez stepped up as the go-to receiver for Tom Brady since the Broncos decided to take Rob Gronkowski out of the game as best they could. There certainly is no shortage of weapons on the offensive side of the ball. The defense is a different story. The loss of Andre Carter, the team’s best pass rusher, is a devastating blow for the Patriots. The pass defense needs all the help it can get and a lack of rush on the quarterback is only going to make it more difficult on the secondary.
Pete Prisco (CBS Sports) ranks them 3rd: They have a month to fix that defense before the playoffs begin. Or at least improve it.
Don Banks (SI) ranks them 3rd: Hard to imagine a better turn of events for the Patriots than Week 15. New England wins a showdown at Denver, then watches as Houston, Baltimore, Pittsburgh and the Jets all lose big, clinching the AFC East title and vaulting the Pats back into the AFC's No. 1 seed with two weeks remaining. The defensive issues are still there in New England, but a couple home playoff games might go a long way toward helping out in that department.
Cold Hard Football Facts ranks them 3rd: If the Patriots can manage 63 points in their last two games, they’ll become the first team ever to score 500 points in back-to-back seasons. It’s worth noting that the 49ers’ great offensive dynasty only did it once ever (1994). Bonus note! The Patriots are the only team ranked in the top 12 in scoring this year that is possessing the ball less than half the game (28:35).
NFL.com experts rank them 3rd
ESPN ranks them 4th: If the Patriots win their final two games, the road to the Super Bowl goes through Gillette Stadium.
Joel Thorman (SB Nation) ranks them 4th: The Pats have now won six straight and they finish off the season against the Dolphins and Bills, which means they should enter the postseason on an eight-game winning streak. As usual, they're getting hot at the right time.
AVERAGE RANK: 3.1 (+1.6)