Well, we're heading into the final quarter of the regular season with only four games left - Cleveland, at Miami, at Baltimore and Buffalo.
Last year at this time the Patriots were preparing to face the then-daunting 11-1 Houston Texans, but this year the Pats have already made it through their toughest stretch. The Ravens will be the biggest challenge remaining, and the Dolphins are always a fight in Miami, but until then, this Sunday would be a good time for the Patriots to practice that 60 minutes of football they're so fond of. They certainly can win out, but I don't expect it to be easy.
Week 14 AFC Rundown:
New England (9-3) vs. Cleveland (4-8)
Miami (6-6) at Pittsburgh (5-7)
NY Jets (5-7) vs. Oakland (4-8)
Buffalo (4-8) at Tampa Bay (3-9)
Denver (10-2) vs. Tennessee (5-7)
Kansas City (9-3) at Washington (3-9)
Indianapolis (8-4) at Cincinnati (8-4)
San Diego (5-7) vs. NY Giants (5-7)
Jacksonville (3-9) vs. Houston (2-10)
Peter King (The MMQB) ranks them 2nd: Bill Belichick set the record for "Most Times Over-Praising a Team On a Nine-Game Losing Streak, 21st Century Category" last week in advance of the Patriots’ game against the Texans. Whatever works. Turns out he was halfway right, as the 34-31 survival show illustrated.
Pete Prisco (CBS Sports) ranks them 2nd: They had a hangover from the Denver game to start the Houston game, but they got it going. The offense is starting to click. The defense? Not so much.
Chris Burke (SI) ranks them 3rd: The Tom Brady-led Patriots may not live or die based on who's at running back. But who's going to be the go-to guy there if New England needs to grind out the clock in the postseason? The carry totals over the past four weeks: LeGarrette Blount 24, Shane Vereen 21, Stevan Ridley 17, Brandon Bolden 16.
The AP Pro32 ranks them 3rd.
Rick Drummond (Pro Football Focus) ranks them T-3rd: (Tied with Saints) Coming out on top of identical 34-31 scores in consecutive weeks, the Patriots got by a team at each end of the scale, taking down the Texans days after outlasting the Broncos. Finding a way to win is all that matters at this point.
Mike Florio (Pro Football Talk) ranks them 3rd: The only thing the Patriots currently are spying is a first-round playoff bye.
Joe Fortenbaugh (Nat'l Football Post) ranks them 3rd:
Joe Zarbano (WEEI) ranks them 3rd: As usual, the Bill Belichick-Tom Brady-led Patriots get stronger and better as the season shifts to November and December. They are one win and one Miami loss away from wrapping up their 11th division title in 13 seasons.
Brian Billick (Fox Sports) ranks them 4th: The Patriots trailed the Texans by 10 points at halftime and have now been outscored by a combined score of 51-10 in the first half the last three games. This is clearly a problem the Patriots need to address before the playoffs.
ESPN experts rank them 4th: Tom Brady was 2-of-7 for 22 yards and a pick against Houston's blitz in the first half, but was 7-of-9 for 137 yards and a touchdown in the second half.
Elliot Harrison (NFL.com) ranks them 4th: Those were some pretty big kicks by Stephen Gostkowski on Sunday at Reliant. The veteran booted it from 53 yards out twice to deliver a win. New England stuck with its bevy of backs, while Tom Brady looked for Rob Gronkowski over and over. There's no question this is a different team with Gronk healthy. In other news, Stevan Ridley looked like he was dividing 695 by 36,525 on the sideline. Nice street clothes. #dontfumble
Hank Gola (NY Daily News) ranks them 4th: Tom Brady bails them out again.
Frank Schwab (Yahoo! Sports) ranks them 4th: It's great to see Tom Brady back to his old form again, but let's not forget that the defense gave up 31 points to a Texans team that barely scored two field goals against the Jaguars a week earlier.
Jason Chilton (SB Nation) ranks them 4th: They made things a lot more interesting than their fans would have liked, but the Pats finally dispatched Houston to move to 9-3 and keep a leg up on the competition for the AFC’s No. 2 seed. Gronk as Goliath, Julian Edelman as gadfly and Shane Vereen as an Aaron Hernandez-style mismatch generator is a combination that could keep clicking for Tom Brady. The defense may just have to endure 100-yard rushers from here on in, but if Aqib Talib and Alfonzo Dennard are healthy come playoff time then the Pats could make a deep run.
Vinnie Iyer (Sporting News) ranks them 5th: The Patriots were caught off guard with the Texans treating their matchup like their , but then Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski and Stephen Gostkowski saved the day and the chances at the No. 1 seed. How they move up: Finish strong with a weak schedule. Everyone left is at or below .500, with the toughest game against AFC playoff nemesis Baltimore. How they move down: Let their run defense keep getting worked. Knowshon Moreno and Ben Tate ripped through it in the past two weeks. They need to limit the damage of not having Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo in their front seven.
USA Today ranks them 5th: If they were really spying again, then they wouldn't have been losing to a bottom-feeder late.
AVERAGE RANK: 3.5 (+0.5)