The New England Patriots (11-4) enter the last week of the regular season ranked as the No. 3 seed in the AFC and anywhere between second and seventh in the Power Rankings. Back in Week 1 this Sunday's final matchup with the Miami Dolphins (7-8) didn't seem like it would mean much, but a win might mean the difference between getting a bye week or having to play an extra game in the playoffs.
Miami would love to end the season on a high note - at .500 and playing spoiler for the Pats' bye week chances. Like the Jags last week, the Fins are in it to win it.
The biggest game of the day for Patriots fans is the Houston Texans (12-3) at the Indianapolis Colts (10-5). Chuck Pagano, the anti-Tony Dungy, has returned and declared his team will play to win. Best news ever, even if it's completely foreign to hear from a head coach in Indy.
Another intriguing game will be the Baltimore Ravens (10-5) in Cincinnati to play the Bengals (9-6), and the Darling Denver Broncos (12-3) host the soon to be dismantled (again) Kansas City Chiefs (2-13).
Brian Billick (Fox Sports) ranks them 2nd: The Patriots have started a scary trend by scoring only three points in the first quarters of the last two games combined. Come playoff time, they can’t afford to come from behind the way they have lately.
Pro Football Weekly ranks them 3rd: Can’t forget they’ll have Rob Gronkowski for the playoffs.
Pete Prisco (CBS Sports) ranks them 3rd: That defense better show improvement before the playoffs start or they won't be going very far.
NFL.com experts rank them 3rd.
USA Today ranks them 3rd: They can be still seeded from first to fourth in AFC. (T4th)
Elliot Harrison (NFL.com) ranks them 4th: The New England Patriots struggled for a good portion of their road game in Jacksonville, so they earned a slight demotion in the Power Rankings (especially since they were coming off a home loss, to boot). One thing that's paramount to this Patriots ballclub, though, is its ability to produce takeaways. Three more Sunday gives New England 36 -- most in the AFC (for the second consecutive season).
Pro Football Talk ranks them 4th: Tom Brady is getting upset, and Rob Gronkowski is getting closer to a return.
Don Banks (SI) ranks them 4th: Pats fans shouldn't get too worked up over the max effort it took to log a measly seven-point win in Jacksonville. New England has often struggled for motivation against bad teams late in the season, once the playoffs have been secured. In the end, the Patriots got it done and logged the W. Another ragged offensive day at home against Miami this week would set off a few alarm bells in Foxboro, but I still think the AFC is headed for a Patriots-Broncos, Brady-Manning title game in three-plus weeks.
The AP Pro32 ranks them 4th.
Shutdown Corner (Yahoo! Sports) ranks them 4th: So much for the ornery Patriots getting back on track by beating up on a cupcake in the form of the Jaguars in Week 16. New England looked sloppy from the get-go as Tom Brady and his receivers appeared to be operating off different playbooks. The Patriots need to get it together this week against the Dolphins as a first-round bye is beyond their control.
ESPN ranks them 5th: The Patriots weren't the Patriots on Sunday, but they did enough to notch 11 wins for the third straight season.
Vinnie Iyer (Sporting News) ranks them 5th: Great catch: WR Wes Welker. Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez have both been hurt at different times, and Brandon Lloyd wasn’t a big factor until recently. Then there’s Welker, who has another 110 receptions in a contract year.
Peter King (SI) ranks them 6th: Great tiebreaker possibility: If Denver (vs. Chiefs), New England (vs. Dolphins) and Houston (at Colts) all finish 12-4, which can happen, the playoff seeding would be Pats one, Texans two and Broncos three.
Patriots Football Weekly ranks them 7th.
Cold Hard Football Facts ranks them 7th: The imbalanced Patriots top the NFL in five of the 20 Quality Stats we use to size up teams in our game analysis at CHFF Insider – including No. 1 on the Relativity Index, which accounts for the quality of opposition.
AVERAGE RANK: 3.9 (-0.4)