Despite the overtime loss to the Broncos on Sunday Night Football, the Patriots are still in the best shape to clinch the top seed in the AFC and be healthy for the playoffs. Those are the two things that should have mattered most, even before getting the first loss of the season. Even though Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola, and Jamie Collins did not play this game in addition to the injuries sustained by Dont'a Hightower and Rob Gronkowski, the Patriots can still field a somewhat healthy team going into the playoffs. All five of those players will return for the playoffs, which could swing the odds back to the Patriots if they can clinch the #1 seed and make teams beat them in Foxboro, where they pretty much never lose an important game with Tom Brady at QB.
In the 4th quarter, everything just stopped when Gronk sustained an injury to the knee and was writhing in pain on the ground as the team had to cart him off. In the next 24 hours, we found out that Gronk's knee is intact and the injury was minor. Once the news passed along, you could hear the giant exhale in the New England area. I hate when teams try to go knee-hunting on Gronk because of the larger potential for a devastating injury in both the short and long term as opposed for tackling at the waist. On other news about Gronk, don't get me started on the phantom OPI fouls called on him this year.
The biggest injury situation to monitor at this point is LB Dont'a Hightower, who left the game with a knee injury after taking a cut-block. Hightower's absence really affected the Patriots run defense, which allowed Denver to average 8 yards per carry (17-136) after only allowing 2.8 (15-43) with him on the field. I don't expected an extended absence from the playing field with him with the expectation he'll be back in 2 weeks. If Jamie Collins can return during Hightower's absence, that will help the run defense a lot since he'll be playing instead of Darius Fleming. With the Patriots facing a rookie and two mediocre QBs in the next three games, the challenge won't be as tough on defense.
As I said last week, the Patriots are likely three wins away from home field advantage. Losing to Denver makes the road a bit tougher now, but 3 wins will give the Patriots a bye for the divisional round plus the Steelers may or may not decide to put chaos in the AFC playoff race with games against Denver and Cincinnati left on the schedule. I wouldn't count on them doing so, given how well they've played on defense this year. 14 wins for sure will give the Patriots the edge for the #1 seed because I think both Denver and Cincinnati will absorb a loss somewhere down the road. The Patriots have Philadelphia, Tennessee, and Houston as their next three games, so there is a strong chance they go 3-0 down that stretch. If they can capitalize down that stretch, the #1 seed is basically the Patriots.
If the Patriots can avoid any more key injuries, I still think this team is still the best in the AFC and a favorite to repeat. The Patriots will likely clinch their division at home against Philadelphia or Tennessee, depending on whether or not the Jets lose on Sunday. Right now, the Patriots are probably at their most vulnerable spot at any point in the season, but at the same time the team needs to show mental toughness and win through this stretch by almost any way possible. Once the Patriots can clinch the top seed, they will rest their key players like they did last year.