Only one thing clear in the AFC: There’s nobody left to challenge the Patriots

Denver Broncos
The Denver Broncos don't look like an AFC contender this season. –AP Photo/Jack Dempsey


It’s over.

OK, so we didn’t get to see the latest look behind the curtain of what’s happening with the eye-opening, 7-1 Philadelphia Eagles on bye over the weekend. But the Atlanta Falcons looked better against the beleaguered Dallas Cowboys, perhaps a sign they’re turning the corner before crushing souls across the Southeast. Again.

Jared Goff and the Los Angeles Rams are just sorta fun to digest, the Tennessee Titans and Jacksonville Jaguars seem to be sticking around (which is cute), and it’s a good bet that the 6-3 Seattle Seahawks will remain in position to strike. Meanwhile, the Minnesota Vikings and New Orleans Saints are a combined 14-4, which means they have as many losses as people who believe they can survive maintaining their excellence over the distance.


Alas, the 7-2 Pittsburgh Steelers did escape Indianapolis with a comeback win on Sunday, a victory that kept them in the elite category of the conference, an AFC population that consists of all of three teams. Depending upon whom you ask.

Our census, for instance, considers it a town built for only one.

Did any other team cement its stature as the preeminent team in the NFL Sunday more than the New England Patriots managed with their 41-16 win over the Denver Broncos at Mile High Sunday? In demoralizing the Broncos, the Patriots did so in a building where Tom Brady and company normally struggle, forcing the Broncos into mistakes that cost them not only the game, but the season, now at a total loss with a 3-6 mark that is just as close to winless Cleveland as it is tying the Kansas City Chiefs for first place in the AFC West.

But — and stop me if you’ve heard this one before — the New England Patriots have proven themselves to be on a thoroughly different level than the other peons of the football world.

Throw the 6-3 Chiefs into the elite pile if you so please along with the Steelers and the Patriots. It’s grading on a curve, but sure, let’s be accepting. But, sorry, the 6-3 Titans and Jaguars don’t get to join, nor do the 5-4 Buffalo Bills, the only other AFC team aside from those already mentioned with a record above .500.


Translation: It doesn’t take much to be considered “elite” in the so-so AFC.

Then again, it was only a few weeks ago that there were some unanticipated nerves being poked in regards to the Patriots starting the 2017 season in a mostly uncharacteristic manner; normally. They looked like just another opponent in a season-opening loss to the Chiefs. Their besieged defense looked lost against the Carolina Panthers, frustrated over solving Deshaun Watson with the Houston Texans, and does anyone even remember the Thursday night Bucs game?

Those somewhat forgettable Patriots have — surprise! — emerged into the team you figured they would be heading into the season. The defense has shifted on its axis (even $65 million man Stephon Gilmore made a presence in Denver, while it can be debated whether or not Malcolm Butler did), Brady continues to play so well with a limited cast that Bill Belichick went and bet the franchise’s future on him, and no other team seems as in tune to solve New England as one might have thought earlier in the NFL campaign.

There are the New England Patriots, and everybody else. Again.

It’s over.

“I don’t think it’s been perfect, and I think we have pretty high expectations for what we’re trying to do offensively, so I know we play well,” Brady said after a 25-for-34 night with 266 yards and three touchdown passes in Denver. “Hopefully we can build on this tonight and gain some confidence in all three phases, which we played well in all three phases.”


There’s a lot to peel away from the win in Denver, not limited to Martellus Bennett’s ability to miraculously heal his ailing shoulder (much to the chagrin of the Green Bay Packers), Rex Burkhead’s emergence as a viable pass-catching weapon out of the backfield, and Gilmore’s solid night up against Demaryius Thomas, which balanced out the head-scratching effort Butler had versus Emmanuel Sanders.

This is who the Patriots are, no longer the 2-2 mystery team that graced the replaced turf at Gillette Stadium once upon a time in days of yore (way back in September). And so it goes.

Barring the Oakland Raiders making a deal with Montezuma, the Patriots aren’t losing in Mexico City this weekend. They have the Miami Dolphins twice, the Bills twice, and the New York Jets one more time. Sweep.

There’s a “Game of the Year” mentality looking ahead to Dec. 17 against the Steelers for supremacy of the AFC. Sorry to spoil the outcome for you, but you should have figured.

It’s over.

“I have never been 7-2 in the league,” Gilmore said. “It is crazy. We just have to keep it going. It feels good to win. I have not won in my whole NFL career, so it feels good.”

Feels good.

Feels normal.

Minnesota is lovely in February.


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