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The Patriots took an unexpected path, but they’re right where everyone expected

The 10-2 Patriots have followed a different route than any Patriots squad before it.

The New England Patriots are 75% done with the 2016 regular season and they’ve overcome plenty of adversity to reach 10-2. Bill Belichick and company are a week or two away from a seemingly inevitable and record-setting 8th straight AFC East title and the 2nd seed in the AFC at a minimum.

So with four weeks to go against a potentially difficult conference slate (Ravens, @Broncos, Jets, @Dolphins), how have the Patriots matched up with expectations entering this season?

For the first quarter of the 2016 season, the Patriots were without QB Tom Brady and had to rely on back-ups Jimmy Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett. Most would have been thrilled if Garoppolo led the Patriots to a 2-2 record over the first four games; people might have expected a 1-3 record if they knew Brissett would lead the offense for 2.5 games.

Instead, the Patriots surprised many by going 3-1, with the lone loss coming against the Bills where Brissett played through a serious hand injury that landed him on the injured reserve. Out of the gate, the Patriots were a game ahead of schedule.

Over the past eight weeks, the Patriots have gone 7-1, with the lone loss coming against the Seattle Seahawks- the #2 team in the NFC. Brady has placed himself atop the MVP discussion and the defense ranks 2nd in the NFL in points allowed per game. And yet this year has not gone as the Patriots predicted.

Every wide receiver and tight end has dealt with an injury at some point this season, while TE Rob Gronkowski is out for the year with a back injury. RB LeGarrette Blount has been the team’s most productive player and the only player with more than 4 touchdowns. The offensive line is possibly the biggest strength of the team.

On defense, the Patriots traded away All Pro LB Jamie Collins and benched ED Jabaal Sheard and CB Logan Ryan. The team is still trying to figure out its identity with the playoffs right around the corner, despite allowing just 2 of their past 10 opponents to exceed 17 points.

The Patriots are jockeying with the AFC West for homefield advantage and are currently tied with the Oakland Raiders for the conference’s best record. The Raiders hold the tiebreaker thanks to the Patriots week 4 loss to the Bills. Based on point differential, the Raiders are overachieving more than any other team in the NFL. FiveThirtyEight gives the Raiders just a 5% chance of winning out, while they give the Patriots a friendlier 23% chance.

If the Patriots can defeat the Ravens next week, then they guarantee the AFC East will receive one of the two bye weeks. And if the Patriots win and the Dolphins lose, then the Patriots will win the AFC East crown.

Maybe the Patriots didn’t reach this point the way anyone expected. We can throw our bold preseason predictions out the window. But it seems like all roads led to the same point and the Patriots are where everyone expected- atop the AFC East and eyeing homefield advantage.