NFL: Why the Patriots are Still the AFC Favorite

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The New England Patriots have lost two straight; they were just manhandled by a brutal Philadelphia Eagles team at home; and the team’s got loads of injuries to overcome. The sky is falling in Foxborough, Massachusetts. Pump the brakes for a second New England, your beloved Patriots are still the favorites in the AFC. You want to know what’s even more unheard of than the Pats losing two consecutive games under head coach Bill Belichick? How about three straight defeats?

Though Tom Brady and company will face a tough road test against a hot Houston Texans team on Sunday night, we fully expect No. 12 to come through for his squad. After that, the final three contests of the regular season represent significantly less challenging tasks. Week 15 will be the Pats’ final home game of the regular season and it could be a bloodbath. They will almost certainly be double-digit favorites over the Tennessee Titans.

Then comes one final semi-test for this offense in Week 16, on the road against the New York Jets. Depending on what happens over the next two games for Gang Green, this matchup against their hated division rivals will likely have major playoff implications. At the end of the day though, we’ll take Brady over Ryan Fitzpatrick 100% of the time. Now that the Pats have lost a pair of games, the Week 17 visit to Miami to face the Dolphins will almost certainly have tons of meaning to Belichick’s crew in terms of playoff seeding. Expect Brady to start and play the whole game and the Pats to win this one too.

So, while Sunday night’s primetime showdown in Texas should be a great, tightly-contested game, we just can’t see New England losing three straight. From there, the last three games should go Brady’s way as well, allowing the Patriots to finish 14-2. You’ve seen where we have the Patriots finishing; now let’s look at the schedule of their main competition for the AFC’s top seeds, the Cincinnati Bengals and Denver Broncos.

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Although many realize that the Patriots no longer “control their own destiny,” they do still have a great shot at snagging the No. 2 seed, controlling their fate in a different way. The Bengals and Broncos have to square off in Week 16, which means that — barring a one-in-a-million tie — one of the teams will finish with at least three losses on the year. Therefore, the Patriots know that at this point, all they have to do is win out to secure a second seed and thus, a first-round bye.

Looking at the remaining schedule for the current AFC North leaders, the Bengals’ only other big game, which should be close, comes this Sunday against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Because of their home-field advantage and strong defense, we expect Cincinnati to hold off Pittsburgh. Sandwiching the massive contest in the penultimate week of the season against Denver (which we have the Broncos winning), will be winnable games (at San Francisco in Week 15 and versus Baltimore in Week 17.) True, there’s always the notion of “any given Sunday,” but we have the Bengals easily knocking off both the 49ers and Ravens, which would give them a final 13-3 mark.

Meanwhile, the Broncos will square off against a struggling Oakland Raiders team at Mile High Stadium, and we foresee another Brock Osweiler victory. Week 15 will bring a different monster though, as Denver travels to Pittsburgh, which we believe will be the Broncos’ last loss of the regular season. As we mentioned before, we have Denver fighting off Cincinnati in Week 16, and then Week 17 should bring a relatively easy win at home against the San Diego Chargers.

If our predictions hold true, the Patriots would regain ownership of the top seed in the conference with a 14-2 record; the Broncos would secure a first-round bye with a 13-3 mark (and the head-to-head tiebreaker over Cincinnati); and the Bengals would come in at third at 13-3. When we said New England should still be viewed as the AFC favorite, we did not simply mean that they would get the No. 1 seed. We also meant that they are still the top choice for advancing to Super Bowl 50 from the conference as well.

First, the positives for the Pats. While the locker room still resembles a walking injury ward, Brady’s best weapon on offense, Rob Gronkowski, should return for Week 15. Julian Edelman will miss the rest of the regular season but is supposed to come back ready for the postseason. Not having Dion Lewis will hurt, but having Gronk and Edelman back will suffice for No. 12.

Osweiler has been terrific replacement for Manning. That’s the good news. The bad news is, when Manning gets healthy, head coach Gary Kubiak will have one hell of a decision to make. To add to it, the vast inconsistency of their running game does little to support what could be an anemic passing game if Manning is reinstated as the starting QB.

Then, you have the Bengals. Plan and simple, until Dalton (and head coach Marvin Lewis for that matter) gets a win in the playoffs, they will continue to be criticized by both fans and media. Let’s not forget that there could be other contenders in the AFC, too. The Kansas City Chiefs are red hot, the Steelers are a popular dark horse with an electric offense, and the Indianapolis Colts will get Andrew Luck back eventually. When it comes down to it though, who would you rather have as your head coach, Belichick or the field? And who would you rather have calling the shots as quarterback, Tom Brady or someone else?

Follow Victor on Twitter @vbarbosa1127

All data courtesy of NFL.com and ESPN.com.