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

Posted by Albert Breer  November 29, 2009 09:09 PM

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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.

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.

News, analysis and commentary from Boston.com's staff writers and contributors, including Zuri Berry and Erik Frenz.

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