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ANALYSIS

Thriving in hard division

MIAMI -- The superiority of the AFC over the NFC has been obvious and well-documented this season, but there is dominance even within that superior conference and it involves the Patriots and their closest rivals.

That the AFC is the better of the conferences goes without saying after you realize that the NFC has only four winning teams in it while the AFC has nine, but within the AFC the East Division is so superior to the rest it makes the achievements of the Patriots this season even more remarkable.

As New England readied itself to take on the lowly Miami Dolphins last night at Pro Player Stadium its record was 12-1, a half-game behind the 13-1 Steelers, who held home-field advantage throughout the playoffs by virtue of their October victory over the Patriots. They held it outright after the Patriots were shocked by the Dolphins, 29-28.

Yet if degree of difficulty was factored in before the game, the Patriots would have been the top seed in the conference by acclamation because to build their record, they had to face down two other division teams still in the hunt for playoff berths: the Jets and the surprising Buffalo Bills. No other division can make that claim, because no other division has three winning teams.

In fact, only one of the NFC's divisions, the NFC North, has even two winning teams, while the Patriots have had to survive the onslaughts of the 10-4 Jets and 8-6 Bills to reach their lofty status.

The Steelers have only one other winning team in their division, and it is that team, the Baltimore Ravens, that beat them 13 weeks ago. Sunday, they will try to do it again in Pittsburgh to keep their own playoff hopes alive, and does anyone think that's not possible, considering the Steelers' recent offensive struggles and the Ravens' rock-ribbed defense?

Meanwhile, the Jets square off against New England in the Meadowlands next Sunday with New York knowing that if it was playing in the NFC North or NFC West, it already would have a playoff slot and, in the case of the NFC West, division title locked up. Yet because they're in the AFC, the Jets could end up missing the postseason altogether, which makes the game against the Patriots an important one, to say the least.

Meanwhile, lurking in the shadows are the Bills, who were officially left for dead Nov. 14 after the Patriots pulverized them, 29-6. Buffalo has won seven of its last eight games and outscored its opponents, 187-82, since that loss to New England to reach 8-6 and at least create the possibility of becoming only the second team in league history to start 0-4 and reach the postseason.

To do that they must do more than simply win out, however, and that will be difficult since the season finale is against the Steelers in Buffalo. But it is far from an impossibility, though their offense has continued to struggle.

The Bills scored only one offensive touchdown against Cincinnati Sunday, a 5-yard throw from Drew Bledsoe to Lee Evans after a 60-yard completion moved the ball to the 5. But other than that, the Bills have been playing offense the way New England often did in its first Super Bowl season -- conservatively, and with an emphasis not on making plays but on not making mistakes.

"We knew they were going to move the ball," Bills coach Mike Mularkey said. "A big emphasis of ours was patience. At some point, they're going to make a mistake."

That borrows directly from the Patriots' approach. No team in the league makes as few mistakes as New England, and few teams make their opponents pay more dearly for theirs. Despite winning two of the last three Super Bowls, no one would call New England's offense explosive. It is one that limits its errors and instead waits for its opponents to commit them. When that happens, as it invariably has, with the exception of the afternoon they went to Pittsburgh and last night's meltdown, the Patriots leap on their opponent and choke the life out of them.

Now the Bills, who possess a terrific defense as well as an improved running game, are trying the same approach, and it's resulted in reduced turnovers and consistent victories. Whether or not Buffalo can do that on two more Sundays may be debatable, but one thing is not. The AFC East is the toughest division in pro football, and the teams that survive it will be battle-hardened and very dangerous once the postseason begins.

Certainly the Steelers can argue that they are the best team in football, and now that Eagles wide receiver Terrell Owens is lost for the season with a broken leg, the only team that can join that debate would seem to be New England -- even though Philadelphia is 13-1. But the difference is that none of the Eagles' divisional opponents can even finish at .500, so Philadelphia has little to worry about until the postseason.

The Packers are in such a lame division that they could lose their remaining two games and still would make the playoffs. The Falcons have won the NFC South, and while Carolina or even New Orleans, both at 6-8, could reach the postseason, don't bet on it. And in the NFC West, the Seahawks and Rams are fighting to see which team can find a way not to make the postseason.

Indianapolis (AFC South) and San Diego (AFC West) have three-game leads, and the Steelers are five games ahead of the Ravens in the North. To their credit, the Patriots also have a wide lead, but the more impressive fact is that they built theirs the hard way. In the toughest division in football. 

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