Pats solidify East lead, but 2-seed race heats up

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NEW ORLEANS — With the Dolphins’ loss in Buffalo today (injuries are finally catching up with Miami, it seems), the Patriots can open a three-game lead in the AFC East by winning Monday night.

And it’s assured that all they have to do is finish 11-5, meaning finish 4-2, to assure a seventh division title in nine years. So it may be time to turn your focus here and here.

The Chargers, Bengals, and Patriots are now in a tight race for the first-round bye that will remain after Indianapolis locks up the No. 1 seed. The Chargers — who I believe, along with the Vikings, are playing the best ball in the NFL right now — have won six straight. The Bengals are back on track, after an inexcusable Week 10 loss in Oakland, and completed a sweep of their division today by beating Cleveland.

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Here’s the remaining slate for each of these teams …

New England: @NO, @Mia, Car, @Buf, Jax, @Hou

Cincinnati: Det, @Min, @SD, KC, @NYJ

San Diego: @Cle, @Dal, Cin, @Ten, Was

It’s worth noting that the Broncos could still catch the Chargers in the West, and the Steelers, even after getting swept, could use a tough Chargers-Vikings turn for Cincy to pass the Bengals in the North.

But as it stands right now, you can see why Monday night’s game is more than just a bunch of hype for the Patriots. And why that Dec. 20 clash between the Bengals and Chargers in San Diego looms large.