Ranking of the Week goes to Chris Burke:
New England's version of looking mortal these days is losing by five points at Lambeau, where even the 1972 Dolphins might be tested right now, and capturing an ugly nine-point road victory over a possible playoff team. Bill Belichick's group will be a heavy favorite for its final three games, and a 3-0 mark is all that stands between New England and the No. 1 seed. If that isn't worthy of a wild, neck spasm-inducing, expletive-flying fist pump from Tom Brady, then I don't know what is. I mean, other than Brady running for a first down.
For some perspective, last year's 10-3 Patriots were ranked around 4th or 5th instead of 1st or 2nd and it wasn't just because Rob Gronkowski was the latest casualty piled on the IR heap. Another reason was because of a defense that surrendered 494 yards to the Browns, including 391 to QB Jason Campbell, at home. I certainly didn't want to believe it at that time, but the wheels were falling off the wagon.
What has made the difference this year? Health is a biggie. Jerod Mayo, Stevan Ridley and Aaron Dobson have been lost, but Sealver Siliga is back, and Dont'a Hightower and Chandler Jones are due to return in time for the playoffs.
Defense is the other factor. A HUGE one. So when the experts now have the Pats as one of the top two teams in the league it's with the understanding that Tom Brady runs the offense as the machine that it is, but the upgraded defense is the game-changer.
Forget a year ago, this isn't even the same team that faced Miami back in September. Division teams play each other tough and I expect a fight from the Fins on Sunday, but I also expect the better team to win, the team that's primed for the playoffs -- New England.
Around the AFC East:
New England (10-3) vs. Miami (7-6)
Buffalo (7-6) vs. Green Bay (10-3)
NY Jets (2-11) at Tennessee (2-11)
Notable AFC Matchups:
Denver (10-3) at San Diego (8-5)
Indianapolis (9-4) vs. Houston (7-6)
Cincinnati (8-4-1) at Cleveland (7-6)
Pittsburgh (8-5) at Atlanta (5-8)
Baltimore (8-5) vs. Jacksonville (2-11)
Kansas City (7-6) vs. Oakland (2-11)
Frank Schwab (Yahoo! Sports) ranks them 1st: Linebacker Jamie Collins and Bill Belichick are a fantastic combination, pairing an incredibly versatile defender with a defensive genius who knows how to get the most out of his talents.
Andy Hart (Patriots Football Weekly) ranks them 1st using the Wilson-Hart power index.
ESPN Experts rank them 2nd: Sunday was Tom Brady's 64th career 300-yard game, passing Dan Marino for third most in NFL history. The win also makes Brady a ridiculous 46-7 as a starter in December.
Dan Schneier (Fox Sports) ranks them 2nd: The Patriots have one of the league’s elite pass defenses with sound coverage on the back end and contributions in the pass rush from a variety of different defenders. With a healthy Rob Gronkowski and the offensive line looking like the one we saw in 2013, the passing offense is tough to stop.
Pat Kirwan (CBS Sports) ranks them 2nd: The Patriots stayed in San Diego all week and beat the Chargers in a hard-fought battle. Coach Bill Belichick is now 6-1 against Philip Rivers. The Pats are in good shape to retain the top seed for the playoffs. It will be tough for any team to go into Foxborough and win.
Chris Burke (SI) ranks them 2nd: New England's version of looking mortal these days is losing by five points at Lambeau, where even the 1972 Dolphins might be tested right now, and capturing an ugly nine-point road victory over a possible playoff team. Bill Belichick's group will be a heavy favorite for its final three games, and a 3-0 mark is all that stands between New England and the No. 1 seed. If that isn't worthy of a wild, neck spasm-inducing, expletive-flying fist pump from Tom Brady, then I don't know what is. I mean, other than Brady running for a first down.
The AP Pro32 ranks them 2nd.
Tom Layberger (Masslive) ranks them 2nd: New England spent the week in San Diego and felt almost at home with all the Patriots fans that descended upon Qualcomm Stadium. By pulling out the win in the fourth quarter, the Patriots extended their string of 10-win seasons to a remarkable dozen. The defense held the Chargers to a minuscule total of 216 yards and recorded four sacks of Philip Rivers.
Elliot Harrison (NFL.com) ranks them 2nd: Three observations from the Patriots' victory in San Diego on Sunday night: a) Gutty wins like that are precisely why I still feel confident in my Super Bowl prediction. b) Bringing back LeGarrette Blount -- a highly motivated LeGarrette Blount -- was genius. c) Jamie Collins can really play.
Peter King (The MMQB) ranks them 2nd: Quick note about the 2014 Patriots: Jamie Collins was a really good pick by Bill Belichick and Nick Caserio in the second round of the 2013 draft. Rangy and hard to block. Anyhoo … The Patriots clinch the AFC East with a win Sunday at home against Miami (yawn), and if it’s not this Sunday, it’ll be the next one. They’re at the Jets in 13 days.
USA Today ranks them 2nd: Rob Gronkowski needed five years to become the first tight end with four campaigns of double-digit receiving touchdowns.
Hank Gola (NY Daily News) ranks them 2nd: Defense keyed this win.
Mark Maske (Washington Post) ranks them 2nd: Coach Bill Belichick had the Patriots spend the week in San Diego after losing in Green Bay, rather than returning home and then traveling back across the country. It worked out, as the Patriots used 10 fourth-quarter points Sunday night to beat the Chargers. They remain in control of the race for the No. 1 playoff seed in the AFC and finish with three divisional games against the Dolphins, Jets and Bills. Only the Jets game is on the road.
Vinnie Iyer (Sporting News) ranks them 2nd: Whether it’s fast and little with Julian Edelman and Shane Vereen, or big and powerful with Rob Gronkowski and LeGarrette Blount, they’re back to beating you any way that Tom Brady can find the right mismatch.
Pete Prisco(CBS Sports) ranks them 2nd: They went to San Diego and showed they should be the top seed in the AFC. They don't lose back-to-back games often under Bill Belichick.
Mike Florio (ProFootballTalk) ranks them 2nd: With the three AFC East rivals on the docket, anything other than 13-3 would be a surprise.
Danny Kelly (SB Nation) ranks them 2nd: The Patriots bounced back this week with a big win on the road in San Diego, moving up two spots to No. 2. New England has won eight of its last nine games. The Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski-led offense is humming along like a well-oiled machine, and more importantly, the defense is coming on as well. The Pats held Philip Rivers and the Chargers' offense to 216 net yards, and if the Patriots can continue to get shutdown performances from their defense down the stretch, they'll be near impossible to beat.
Patrick Imig (Cold Hard Football Facts) ranks them 2nd using their Quality Stats rankings.
AVERAGE RANK: 1.9 (+0.3)