Remember back to the beginning of the 2016 NFL season when we were all supposed to be worried about the Arizona Cardinals? Arizona was the experts' consensus Super Bowl favorite, led by latest-greatest hot head coach Bruce Arians. Adam Gates was going to have Miami turned around, Todd Bowles would take the Jets to the next level, Buffalo's defense was being built to shut down the Patriots and the AFC East would no longer be handed to New England on a silver platter. Remember that?
Well forget it. Fast forward to now and hit refresh on those old story-lines.
To listen to the talking heads, it would seem the Patriots have not yet played any team worth measuring itself by. But that all ends with the Ravens coming into town for a Monday night grudge-match, followed by a trip to Denver in Week 15. A tough two-game stretch for sure. The Ravens feel this will be a revenge game after they were robbed of a divisional-round win (and eventual Super Bowl championship) in 2014 due to a few 'clearly deceptive' trick plays. Also, the Patriots possibly, maybe, just might be holding onto a teeny-tiny resentment over how deflategate originated in Baltimore with that pesky alert letter to the Colts.
Monday night's game won't settle anything - and may even add to the list of grievances - but a win would certainly help the Patriots' chances of sealing the division and earning the No. 1 seed in the AFC. The Ravens need the win to stay ahead of the Steelers, who are right behind them with the same record. The past 12 games don't hold much weight anymore. This is December football, and the stakes are high.
Around the AFC East::
New England (10-2) vs. Baltimore (7-5)
Miami (7-5) vs. Arizona (5-6-1)
Buffalo (6-6) vs. Pittsburgh (7-5)
NY Jets (3-9) at San Francisco (1-11)
Oakland (10-2) at Kansas City (9-3)
Denver (8-4) at Tennessee (6-6)
Houston (6-6) at Indianapolis (6-6)
San Diego (5-7) at Carolina (4-8)
Cincinnati (4-7-1) at Cleveland (0-12)
Jacksonville (2-10) vs. Minnesota (6-6)
1st - Manish Mehta (NY Daily News): No Gronk, no problem. As long as Tom Brady, the greatest QB winner in NFL history, is upright, the Patriots will be the AFC favorites to go to the Super Bowl. A tough test against the Ravens awaits.
1st - Analytics (ESPN Stats & Information): The Patriots remain No. 1 in FPI, but there were some big movers below them last week, including the Steelers jumping four spots to No. 5.
2nd - Frank Schwab (Yahoo! Sports): Here’s an amazing stat from Jeff Howe of the Boston Herald: Since 2003, the Patriots have won 12 division titles in 13 seasons and every one of those division titles have been clinched before Week 17. All 12. Unless there’s a crazy turn of events this season, the Patriots will go into Week 17 yet again with the AFC East already clinched. Only four times in that run have the Patriots clinched the division title as late as Week 16. That’s unbelievable dominance.
2nd - Elliot Harrison (NFL.com): The Patriots stay right on the Cowboys' heels in terms of the top spot in the Power Rankings -- and right on the Raiders' heels in the race for home-field in the AFC. (Quick aside: How weird is that to read, that New England is tied with Oakland -- Oakland -- for the conference's top record?!) In other news -- big news, in terms of NFL history: Tom Brady's win on Sunday was his 201st as an NFL starter, a new quarterback record. I remember when I couldn't get over Roger Staubach's regular-season mark of 85-29. Brady has doubled that number in the regular season (179th on Sunday), with a better winning percentage. Yeah, I don't see anyone catching Brady.
2nd - Jenny Vrentas (The MMQB): As per usual this time of year, the Patriots’ only real remaining race is that for AFC home-field advantage. In my opinion, they have a slightly easier remaining schedule (vs. Ravens, at Broncos, vs. Jets, at Miami) than the Raiders, who have three remaining road AFC West contests.
2nd - Mark Maske (Washington Post): The Patriots’ first game since placing TE Rob Gronkowski on the IR list was a routine victory. But it was against the Rams and it was at home, so it wasn’t exactly much of a test. Things should be much tougher next Monday night with the Ravens on hand in Foxborough, Mass. The Ravens have demonstrated in the past they have absolutely no fear of the Patriots. That game is followed by a trip to Denver, so it soon could be clear whether the Patriots will be able to cope with life without Gronkowski and seize the No. 1 seed in the AFC postseason field.
2nd - Zack Cox (NESN): The Patriots’ defense looked great against the hapless Rams, but is their Rob Gronkowski-less offense potent enough to carry them past their various AFC contenders?
2nd - Vinnie Iyer (Sporting News): New England is doing things a little different offensively without Rob Gronkowski, and because of Tom Brady and his wideouts, it’s still pretty darn effective. That was a key performance by the defense against the Rams. This week: vs. Ravens, Monday.
2nd - Cameron DaSilva (Fox Sports): The Patriots routed the Rams, as expected, in their first game without Rob Gronkowski. The offense isn’t nearly as explosive without him on the field, but as long as Tom Brady is healthy, they’ll be just fine. The biggest concerns are on defense, where they struggle to get pressure on the quarterback and lock down opposing receivers. Their offensive dominance far outweighs those deficiencies, though.
2nd - Pete Prisco (CBS Sports): No Gronk, no problem. They will be without Rob Gronkowski the rest of the year, but they were fine without him against the Rams.
2nd - Luke Miller (Metro): Similarly, on Monday night the Patriots will have a chance to clinch the AFC East against the Ravens if the Dolphins have lost their earlier game. Either way, this game featuring two division leaders could foreshadow a playoff matchup we’ve seen give great games in recent years. The Patriots win over the Rams this week was Tom Brady’s 201st career victory, moving him out of a tie with Peyton Manning for the most by a quarterback in NFL history.
2nd - Experts (ESPN): Tom Brady is now the career wins leader among quarterbacks. But New England's defense continues to fall under the radar. The Patriots are tied for second-fewest points allowed this season. The team they are tied with? Their Week 14 opponent, the Ravens.
2nd - Staff (AP Pro32).
2nd - Rick Gosselin (Dallas News): For the first time this season, the Patriots rank in the Top 10 in both offense and defense. Arizona is the only other team that can lay claim to that statistical double this week.
3rd - Chris Burke (SI): The Patriots could clinch their eighth consecutive AFC East title as early as Monday, and their Week 13 win over the Rams guaranteed them 10 victories for the 14th(!!) consecutive season. To call them a "machine" would be a disservice because even machines break down from time to time.
3rd - Lorenzo Reyes (USA Today): When you've got the winningest (and probably greatest) quarterback ever, you can overcome loss of probably the greatest tight end ever.
3rd - Adam Stites (SB Nation).