At 9-3, the New England Patriots are once again the AFC East champions. With that, they win their 10th division crown in 12 years.
It's always about more than division titles in New England. The elusive grand prize of the Lombardi Trophy now hangs in the balance, and the Patriots must now focus their efforts on preparing for the games that will matter the most: the ones that stand between them and that trophy.
They can make their path to that trophy a lot easier with a dominant December, but a few injuries have set up some potential speed bumps and road blocks ahead of them.
Here's where the team stands and where they could be headed from here as we look forward to Week 14.
Primary Talking Point
All anyone can talk about is the upcoming game against the Houston Texans on Monday Night Football.
It's one of the two toughest games left on the schedule, and perhaps their toughest game all season.
There are plenty of matchups to be excited about, particularly the Patriots' No. 1-ranked third-down offense (52.6 percent conversions) against the Texans' No. 1-ranked third-down defense (28.4 percent).
Perhaps the Patriots' No. 4 offensive passer rating (102.3) vs. the Texans' No. 3 defensive passer rating (75.6). Maybe the Texans' propensity to blitz (send extra rushers 43.9 percent of opponent's drop-backs) against teams' tendencies not to blitz Brady (extra rushers sent on 25.3 percent of his drop-backs).
This showdown figures to be the talk of the town—and the talk of the country—for the coming five days.
The Patriots' injury report is a doozie.
Logan Mankins updates are few and far between, but he was inactive for Sunday's game against the Dolphins and remains questionable for next week's game against the Texans. He is nursing an ankle injury that has been nagging him since Week 10.
Dan Connolly left Sunday's game with a back injury. There are no updates yet on his status for Monday's game.
The big injury story, though, is wide receiver Julian Edelman, who broke his foot in the fourth quarter of Sunday's game and was placed on season-ending injured reserve on Tuesday. The wide receiver missed time earlier this year with a hand injury. Now, the Patriots enter the offseason with significant durability questions about Edelman, who they had hoped would evolve into a potential replacement for Wes Welker next year.
In positive news, though, a report from The Boston Herald indicates that both Mankins and defensive end Chandler Jones are recovering from ankle injuries, and both were spotted at the team's walk-through on Wednesday.
Gave up just two pressures on 45 pass-blocks, and set the edge beautifully on a number of running plays in his direction. The one sack he gave up on the day was the first sack he's allowed since Week 7 against the Seahawks (via ProFootballFocus.com).
Just another Wes Welker-type game for Wes Welker. He caught 12 of the 18 passes thrown his direction for 103 yards and a touchdown. Welker has remained productive even with so much changing around him on the offensive line, at the skill positions, etc. His role is likely irreplaceable, even more so now with Edelman out for the season.
Continues to get backup offensive linemen ready to play at a high level on the fly. Remember when the offensive line was a big concern headed into the season? Now, even while pieces continue to fall off the line, they are right back where they've been for the past decade-plus: a non-story.
It wasn't perfect in the running game, as the Patriots struggled to 10 yards on eight carries in the first half, and they gave up five sacks on Brady, but they opened things up in the running game late and got Brady enough protection to make plays down the stretch.
Got burned on five receptions for 84 yards into his coverage, and there would have been another 48 yards and a touchdown against him had Ryan Tannehill delivered an accurate ball to a wide-open Brian Hartline (circled in yellow below).
Granted, that's as much on safety Steve Gregory (circled in red) for biting on play-action as it is on Talib, if not more, but neither looked good on the play, and Talib was exposed all day.
The Patriots had to have known they'd get some good and bad from Talib when they traded for him—that's been his track record throughout his career. This was one of his bad games.
- The Patriots are the first team since the free-agency era to post 12 consecutive winning seasons.
- Quarterback wins are not a great metric for measuring greatness of a quarterback specifically as much as a franchise, but Brady's record of 149-44 in the regular and postseason combined makes him the only quarterback with a plus-100 win-loss margin (hat tip to Kerry Byrne of Cold, Hard Football Facts).
- One component in their ability to string together wins has been their complementary football. People will point to their pass defense as the bane of their existence, but they are riding the same formula to success year after year. Their resounding offensive success, coupled with an opportunistic bend-but-don't-break defense, is proving to be a winning formula in the regular season. Let's see if it carries over into the postseason.
- The late drive for a field goal was exactly what the Patriots needed to wash away the bad taste of several blown opportunities earlier in the season. They milked 7:13 off the clock and forced the Dolphins to take all three of their timeouts. They struggled to run the ball early but picked it up on that drive, with 54 yards on 11 carries (4.9 YPA) against the league's fourth-best run defense in YPA (3.8), and in situations where the opponent knew they were trying to run it.
- Concerned that Brandon Lloyd hasn't panned out? Stomach turning over his one reception against the Dolphins? Read Greg Bedard of The Boston Globe on the matter. Take two chill pills and call me in the morning if things don't feel better.
The Patriots' final four games are perhaps more important than any final four games they've played in recent years, and by far more challenging. The combined record of the final four opponents the Patriots have played in the past two years is 56-72 (31-33 in 2010, 25-39 in 2011). This year, their final four opponents are a combined 26-21-1.
Their next two opponents, the Texans and 49ers, account for 19 of those wins.
The Patriots have a few scenarios that could help them clinch a first-round bye, but not many of them include a loss to the Texans this week.
Erik Frenz is the AFC East lead blogger for Bleacher Report. Be sure to follow Erik on Twitter and "like" the AFC East blog on Facebook to keep up with all the updates. Unless specified otherwise, all quotes are obtained firsthand or via team press releases.
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