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It doesn't hurt that luck is favoring Patriots

MATT CASSEL Surgery on hand MATT CASSEL Surgery on hand
By Christopher L. Gasper
Globe Staff / November 19, 2011

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Forget Foxborough. With the run of good fortune the Patriots have enjoyed this week, Bill Belichick should take a ride 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 Belichick press conference. The Patriots were coming off consecutive defeats and staring down antagonist Rex Ryan and the New York Jets. It was all doom and gloom and drafting critiques on the 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 and a confluence of injuries around the league that benefit their cause.

The Patriots have the easiest schedule in the NFL the rest of the way. Their seven opponents - Kansas City, Philadelphia (road), Indianapolis, Washington (road), Denver (road), Miami, and Buffalo - have a winning percentage of .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 to be 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 Thursday evening, putting New York farther 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 isn’t enough to get Belichick & Co. home-field advantage through the playoffs, then the misfortunes of the other AFC front-runners could be. All three of the Patriots’ chief competitors for the top seed have hurting franchise players.

Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger poked more holes in the New England pass defense than Red Sox ownership did in the résumé of Dale Sveum. But Big Ben has a fractured thumb on his throwing hand. He is 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 Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis is dealing with a toe injury that will probably prevent him from playing tomorrow against Cincinnati and could put him out of Thursday’s Harbaugh holiday family reunion between the Ravens and 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 coordinator Wade Phillips. Houston also had the type of quarterback in Matt Schaub who could pick the Patriots’ pass defense as clean as a Thanksgiving 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 Jan. 1 against the Bills, who have Harvard alumnus Ryan Fitzpatrick under center.

The Chiefs’ 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 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. It’s all breaking right for Belichick and Brady to get another crack at Super Bowl title 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 was unconscious and partially out of bounds but with the ball nestled against his leg, allowing 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 says 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.

Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at cgasper@globe.com and can be read at www.boston.com. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.

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