Deep concerns about the defensive side of the ball, confidence in the offense and a cupcake schedule are the themes throughout this week's rankings. The experts have the Patriots ranked anywhere from 2nd to 7th, similar to last week, and again there's not much to dispute. Sunday's game against the Colts didn't really teach us much, except to emphasize just how effective Tom Brady is when he's leading the no-huddle - even more so when a team decides to leave Rob Gronkowski uncovered in the Red Zone, or a wide-open Wes Welker when the Patriots need a first down.
What I will take issue with is the cupcake schedule perception. I'm guessing Bill Belichick won't be treating his friend Mike Shanahan's team like a preseason game, even against the limping Redskins (4-8). But the Denver Broncos are on fire, winning six of their last seven and with a solid shot at improving their record to 8-5 after playing the Caleb Hanie-led Bears (7-5) this week. Stopping Tim Tebow is in no way a cupcake assignment for the Pats defense. Scoring on Denver will be a challenge for the offense and just keeping Brady upright will give the O-Line all they can handle. Plus it's in Denver - never an easy place to play for New England in any season.
The Miami Dolphins have been playing well too, winning four of their last five games. Sure their record reads 4-8, but in this league it's all about what have you done for me lately, and lately they've been playing good football. No cupcake there.
Playing the Bills in Buffalo might have been a tough one had their Fitzmagic not Fitzfizzled, losing their last five games in a row. Since it will be a division game it can't be taken lightly, but I expect the Patriots to play hard to pull out a win and split the series. The outcome may make the difference between first and second seed in the playoffs, depending on how the Ravens do with the remaining games on their schedule.
My money is still on the Patriots winning out, but the stakes are at their highest and absolutely nothing comes easy this time of year.
The Sporting News ranks them 2nd: Breakout star: TE Rob Gronkowski. As good as Gronk was as a rookie, he's enjoying the best season for a tight end, with a record 14 total touchdowns. His chemistry with Tom Brady is like Randy Moss in 2007.
Brian Billick (Fox Sports) ranks them 2nd: The final score wasn't indicative of how well the Patriots played in this game. Sure, there are still questions on the defensive side of the ball, but I don't see another regular season loss on the Patriots schedule. They have the easiest path to the No. 1 seed, and that is why they are my second-ranked team, and first-ranked team in the AFC.
Peter King (SI) ranks them 2nd: As admirable a game as the Colts played for about 80 percent of it, that they didn't cover Rob Gronkowski on two of three touchdowns ... inexcusable.
Pro Football Talk ranks them 4th: Possibly the only other team besides Pittsburgh that could beat the Ravens in Baltimore, if the Ravens secure the No. 1 seed.
Elliot Harrison (NFL.com) ranks them 5th: New England's poor secondary allows the Saints to leap frog into the four spot. How about that Rob Gronkowski, who now has 13 receiving touchdowns on the year, tied for the most ever in a season for a tight end. He almost had a 14th, but it was considered a lateral. Still, consider that record broken.
Michael Silver (Yahoo! Sports) ranks them 5th: Isn’t it kind of late in the season for lineup tinkering, and is this a sign that Bill Belichick doubts his team’s playoff readiness?
National Football Post ranks them 6th: With Brady, Welker and Gronkowski the Patriots are the toughest offensive matchup in the AFC.
ESPN ranks them 6th: The Patriots' biggest challenge is themselves. They can't fall asleep against a cupcake schedule.
NFL.com experts rank them 6th
Joel Thorman (SB Nation) ranks them 6th: It's December, New England is playing very, very well and leading the AFC East. We call this "Every year the last decade."
WEEI ranks them 6th: Playing 60 minutes of football seems to be challenge for the Patriots. Their fourth-quarter performance was alarming to say the least. The Colts rallied for 21 points in the last 15 minutes of the game. The cupcake schedule continues this week against the Redskins. They won’t play a top caliber quarterback until the playoffs. We won’t find out how good this team actually is until January.
Don Banks (SI) ranks them 6th: If the playoffs opened today, the Patriots would be the AFC's No. 1 seed. Once upon a time that would have meant the road to the Super Bowl definitely wound through Foxboro. But once upon a time, New England didn't lose at home in the playoffs, like it's done in its postseason home opener in each of the past two years (against Baltimore in 2009 and the Jets in 2010). So, as we've said all along this year, nothing matters but January in New England this season.
Cold Hard Football Facts ranks them 6th: The Patriots averaged 2.25 sacks per game last year; this year’s completely revamped front seven is averaging … yep, 2.25 sacks per game.
Pete Prisco (CBS Sports) ranks them 7th: Their defense is really a problem, even against a bad offense like the Colts. But that offense is good enough to overcome it.
AVERAGE RANK: 4.9 (+.1)