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Easy does it for the Patriots

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff  November 18, 2011 06:43 PM

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Forget Foxborough. With the run of good fortune the Patriots have enjoyed this week, coach Bill Belichick should take a ride down to Foxwoods. The way things have been going for the Patriots, he'd walk away with enough earnings from the casino for a new contract for Wes Welker and money for a veteran assistant coach.

Last week at this time, the outlook for the Patriots was more dour than a post-loss, press conference from the coach. The Patriots were coming off consecutive defeats and staring down both a three-game losing streak and antagonist Rex Ryan and the New York Jets. It was all doom and gloom and drafting critiques on the local radio airwaves. Elegies were being offered for the dynastic run of the Belichick-Tom Brady Patriots.

Now, following their statement win last Sunday night over the Jets, the 6-3 Patriots have to be considered the presumptive favorites in the flawed AFC thanks to their couch cushion-soft schedule the rest of the way and a confluence of injury happenings around the rest of the league that benefit their cause.

Beginning with Monday night's game against the Kansas City Chiefs, the Patriots have the easiest schedule in the NFL the rest of the way. New England's final seven opponents -- KC, Philadelphia (road), Indianapolis, Washington (road), Denver (road), Miami, and Buffalo -- boast the lowest winning percentage of any team's remaining competition at .338 (22-43). To finish worse than 12-4 the Patriots would have to close the season with halftime meals of beer and fried chicken.

The toughest game of the not so magnificent seven looks like the trip to Denver, a perpetual house of horrors for the Patriots, for a date with Tim Tebow. The pious passer embarrassed the Jets with a come-from-behind win on Thursday evening, putting the NYJ further in the Patriots' rearview mirror at 5-5. But devout Patriots fans have faith that their God (Belichick) will trump Tebow's in that matchup.

If the schedule wasn't enough to help Belichick and Co. get homefield advantage in the playoffs, then the injury misfortune of the other AFC front-runners could be. All three of the Patriots' chief competitors for the top seed in the AFC have hurting franchise players.

Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger pocked more holes in the New England pass defense then Red Sox ownership did in the resume of Dale Sveum. But Big Ben has a fractured thumb on his throwing hand. He's going to play through it, but it could affect his accuracy the rest of the season and the 7-3 Steelers' run for the No. 1 seed.

It was revealed Friday that ageless Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis is dealing with a toe injury that is going to prevent him from playing on Sunday against Cincinnati and could put him out of Thursday's Harbaugh holiday family reunion between the Ravens and San Francisco 49ers and beyond.

One team that truly should have put fear into the hearts of Patriots fans was the Houston Texans, tied atop the AFC with the Steelers. The Texans have one of the NFL's best running backs in Arian Foster and one of its top wide receivers in Andre Johnson. They have a defense that has gone from worst to first under defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. Houston also had the type of quarterback in Matt Schaub who could pick the Patriots' pass defense clean like a Thanksgiving Day turkey.

The key word is had, past tense. Houston has a problem -- Schaub is out for the year after he suffered a Lisfranc foot fracture last Sunday.

The Patriots probably won't have to face a completely healthy, passing proficient, NFL-starting-caliber quarterback until the season finale at home on Jan. 1 against the Buffalo Bills, who have Harvard alumnus Ryan Fitzpatrick under center.

Chiefs QB Matt Cassel, Brady's former understudy who got his big break the last time Kansas City ventured to Foxborough, had surgery on his injured throwing hand earlier this week.

Philadelphia's Michael Vick suffered two broken ribs in a loss to Arizona last week. He is going to try to play with the injury, but anyone who watched Brady play with fractured ribs in 2009 knows how that injury can lessen the effectiveness of a quarterback. After that, the quarterbacks on tap are Curtis Painter, John Beck, Tebow, and Matt Moore.

Are we sure the Colts are the only NFL team with horseshoes on their helmets? It sure seems like the Patriots have one somewhere, if not on their helmets then down lower, perhaps. It's all breaking right for Belichick and Brady to get another crack at Super Bowl No. 4.

If there was ever a season to win the AFC title with a suspect secondary and a work-in-progress defense in a pass-happy league this is it. There is no Peyton Manning. San Diego's Philip Rivers leads the league in interceptions (15) and looks like he's hiding an arm injury. Roethlisberger has a bum thumb. Schaub, who since 2009 has thrown for more yards than anyone but Drew Brees and Rivers, is out of commission. Baltimore's Joe Flacco looks like a slightly better version of Mark Sanchez.

Of course winning the AFC requires winning a playoff game, something that hasn't happened for the Patriots during the Obama administration. We're not going to learn much about this Patriots team until the playoffs.

But a little bit of luck has always been part of the Patriots' playbook. Remember in 2001, when David Patten being unconscious, partially out of bounds with the ball nestled against his leg allowed the Patriots to beat Buffalo in overtime? The perfect regular season in 2007 season doesn't happen if the Ravens don't negate a fourth-down stop with a timeout and then another stop is negated by Russ Hochstein's fortuitous false start.

The old bromide goes that it's better to be lucky than to be good. Under Belichick the Patriots usually have been both. This season is shaping up as no exception.

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The word

Christopher L. Gasper riffs on the news

Dearth

...That's what the Patriots have when it comes to picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, which starts Thursday. After all those years of stockpiling picks the way a survivalist does non-perishables the Patriots have just five picks in this year's draft, thanks to Band-aid trades for Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco and Aqib Talib. Five picks would be the fewest draft picks in franchise history. (Part of that is attributable to the trimming of the draft to just seven rounds in 1994). Further complicating matters is that two of the Patriots' greatest needs are at wide receiver and cornerback, positions where they have sustained draft droughts. With that in mind, I'm convinced the Patriots are going trade back out of the first round of a quanity-over-quality draft where you're just as likely to pick a Pro Bowl player in the second and third round as you are in the first round.

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