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Patriots are big winners

They’re in top spot after wild weekend

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By Shalise Manza Young
Globe Staff / December 20, 2011
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Bill Belichick is fond of telling players that December is moving month in the NFL - as in some teams move up in the standings and into a playoff spot, while others wilt and do not.

Sunday was a big moving day, and it benefited the Patriots as the Ravens and Texans, the teams on track to claim the top two seeds in the AFC and the accompanying first-round byes, both lost, opening the door for New England to potentially grab home-field advantage throughout the postseason.

Baltimore lost, 34-14, in San Diego, suffering its fourth defeat, all on the road. Houston lost for the first time under rookie quarterback and former third-stringer T.J. Yates, the Texans’ fourth loss coming at home to Carolina.

Meanwhile, the Patriots gathered themselves after a rough first quarter in Denver, and left the Mile High city with their 11th win and ninth AFC East title in Belichick’s tenure.

“That’s one of our goals at the start of the season: to meet the challenge of our division, and our players have done that,’’ Belichick said Sunday night. “We are 6-2 on the road. They’ve done a good job; they’ve met a lot of challenges, and this was a big one. Those guys did a great job. We got contributions from everybody. Really, you’ve got to give the whole team credit.’’

As this morning dawned, the Patriots are the No. 1 seed in the conference because the Steelers also lost last night, falling to the 49ers in San Francisco, 20-3.

Pittsburgh is 10-4 and facing a long road back to the Super Bowl. They lost twice to the Ravens, so they likely will be a wild card. The Steelers’ loss was a huge lift to Baltimore. The Ravens are undefeated at home and can wrap up the AFC North title if they win out.

The Patriots also benefited and are now simply playing for playoff positioning. Had the Steelers won last night, they would have owned the tiebreaker over New England by virtue of a 25-17 victory Oct. 30.

But now, if the Patriots win out - with home games against Miami Saturday and Buffalo Jan. 1 remaining - they will be the top seed in the AFC. If they keep winning through the playoffs, Sunday’s trip to Denver will be New England’s last road game until the Super Bowl, which is in Indianapolis.

Things can change, of course: A week ago at this time, the Patriots were in the third spot and were slated to host the Jets in the wild-card round. Like last season, the Jets are fighting for a playoff berth. They host the Giants Saturday and finish the season at Miami Jan. 1.

But one big moving day in a month of moving in the NFL means New England’s postseason could involve very little moving at all - the Patriots could be at home, welcoming teams to Gillette Stadium, instead of heading to less-familiar digs.

Shalise Manza Young can be reached at syoung@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @shalisemyoung.

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