On Sunday, the New England Patriots—a team already without key starters Julian Edelman, Dion Lewis and Nate Solder and attempting to work star tight end Rob Gronkowski back from a knee injury—lost four more key cogs in Dominique Easley, LeGarrette Blount, Jonathan Freeny and Devin McCourty.
And yet the 11-2 Patriots reclaimed the top spot in the AFC with a dominant 27-6 prime-time victory on the road against a surging, desperate and healthier playoff contender.
"We beat a good football team in a good environment," said special-teamer Matthew Slater, per the Boston Globe. "We needed it, for a number of reasons. I think it does a lot for your team's confidence to get back in the win column. And we realize we're playing for a lot. It was important that we came and got ourselves a win."
In doing so, the defending Super Bowl champions reestablished themselves as the conference's kingpin. Even though they've been hit harder by injuries than every other contender aside from the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Pats are the team to beat in the AFC and should be viewed as a heavy favorite to get back to the Super Bowl as we enter the final three weeks of the 2015 regular season.
By rocking the Texans in Houston and avoiding what would have been their first three-game losing streak in 13 years, the Patriots bounced back from what might have been a necessary two-week swoon. New England was reminded of its mortality in back-to-back losses to the Denver Broncos and Philadelphia Eagles and has now adjusted with time to spare. Potential distractions related to a quest for a perfect season have been squashed, and now the path to Super Bowl 50 is clear.
How are they back on top despite the noted attrition? It of course starts with the quarterback.
Tom Brady is still Tom Brady
The future Hall of Famer and three-time Super Bowl MVP was a smooth 22-of-30 for 226 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions in a turnover-free performance from the New England offense. It was the first time since October in which Brady was able to post a triple-digit passer rating, and he did it against the league's third-ranked pass defense.
The 38-year-old Brady doesn't have the league's strongest or most accurate right arm, and he certainly doesn't have the same caliber weapons as his counterparts in Cincinnati, Denver and Pittsburgh. But this is the most pass-heavy era in NFL history and quarterbacks have never as critical to playoff success as they are right now.
Brady again showed us in Houston that at the end of the day, he's the the quarterback of all quarterbacks. Ben Roethlisberger and Andy Dalton and—if we're to venture into the NFC—Cam Newton, Russell Wilson and Carson Palmer are fantastic, but Brady is the man. It's been that way for over a decade, and it isn't about to change.
The Pats are dealing with dilemmas at a multitude of thin, weakened positions, but there are no questions regarding the most important position on the team.
|Potential Week 15 starting QBs for the 4 AFC division leaders|
|Team (division)||Quarterback||Career stats|
|Patriots (AFC East)||Tom Brady||425 TD, 149 INT|
|Bengals (AFC North)||AJ McCarron||2 TD, 2 INT|
|Colts (AFC South)||Charlie Whitehurst||10 TD, 7 INT|
|Broncos (AFC West)||Brock Osweiler||6 TD, 3 INT|
|Pro Football Reference/NFL.com|
The same cannot be said in Cincy, where on Sunday Dalton suffered a thumb fracture which is expected to keep him out for at least the final three weeks of the regular season. Without the league's highest-rated passer through Week 13, it might not matter much that Cincinnati has a deep array of weapons at wide receiver, tight end and running back.
Or in Denver, where the Broncos also lost at home to an inferior opponent on Sunday, thanks in part to another good-not-great performance from young quarterback Brock Osweiler. Gary Kubiak's conservative offense just refuses to take chances with Peyton Manning's replacement, whom for most intents and purposes is a rookie. As a result, the running game was completely neutralized Sunday as the Denver offensive line had no way of saving Osweiler from an Oakland pass rush that had its ears pinned back.
Or in Indianapolis, where the offensive line continues to place quarterbacks in peril. The Colts, who remain without young franchise pivot Andrew Luck, lost again Sunday to the division rival Jacksonville Jaguars. And in the process, veteran interim starter Matt Hasselbeck went down. Indy might get Luck back eventually, but this is still a team that was struggling with Luck and has now surrendered 96 points in its last two games.
Among the four AFC division leaders, the only one that can right now claim with a straight face to be comfortable with its quarterback situation is New England. And that's huge.
The defense is so much better than you think
Primarily due to Brady's presence, most of us don't spend a whole lot of time thinking about the New England defense. But it's important not to underestimate a unit that entered Week 14 ranked sixth in terms of yards allowed per play.
The broad numbers don't show it because the Eagles scored three non-offensive touchdowns last week in Foxborough, but the the New England D has actually surrendered just two touchdowns and 20 total points in the last two weeks.
In fact, the Pats have held opposing offenses to 13 points or fewer five times in their last seven games.
|Most games with 13 or fewer points allowed|
|Pro Football Reference|
And if Sunday night's performance was any indication, they're peaking as the playoffs near.
That somewhat depleted front seven assaulted a very strong Houston offensive line and made quarterback Brian Hoyer's life a living hell for three and a half quarters. That is until Hoyer was removed from the game to be checked for a concussion after being sacked for a fifth time several minutes into the fourth quarter, a play that pretty much cemented the victory for New England.
The Pats now have 42 sacks on the season, which ranks second to only Denver (44). They also ranked fourth in terms of sack rate entering Week 14 and rated as the fifth-best defense in football, per Pro Football Focus.
The D hasn't been hit as hard by injuries as the offense, but they lost stud cornerback Darrelle Revis and monster defensive lineman Vince Wilfork in the offseason and they've had to make do during stretches without key cogs like Jamie Collins, Jabaal Sheard and Dont'a Hightower. Throw in the losses of Easley, McCourty and Freeny, and it's amazing how they continue to shut down opponents.
On Sunday night, they became the first team all season to limit inevitable first-team All-Pro wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins to fewer than five catches (Hopkins had only three grabs on six targets for 52 yards and was kept out of the end zone for just the sixth time all season).
McCourty's return was originally ruled questionable, Collins and Sheard are back and balling out, and Hightower is expected to return before the end of the year. So there's no reason to believe this defense won't keep rolling.
The path is relatively clear
Throw in Edelman's looming return and you can see why the Patriots were never actually facing doomsday. They've likely seen the worst in terms of tumult this season, and they're now regaining both steam and players.
Meanwhile, the Bengals, Broncos and Colts each face major questions.
Sure, you could argue that the wild-card chasing Steelers and Chiefs are in similar situations. Both dealt with crippling injuries earlier in the year and are heating up as the playoffs approach. But the difference is the Pats are 11-2 and likely to lock up home-field throughout January while Pittsburgh and Kansas City (both 8-5) will have to play wild-card games and go on the road for the entirety of their postseason runs.
|AFC standings with three weeks remaining|
|Team||Record||Week 15||Week 16||Week 17|
|1. Patriots||11-2||vs. TEN||at NYJ||at MIA|
|2. Bengals||10-3||at SF||at DEN||vs. BAL|
|3. Broncos||10-3||at PIT||vs. CIN||vs. SD|
|4. Colts||6-7||vs. HOU||at MIA||vs. TEN|
|5. Chiefs||8-5||at BAL||vs. CLE||vs. OAK|
|6. Jets||8-5||at DAL||vs. NE||at BUF|
|NFL.com/Pro Football Reference|
New England controls its own destiny with a relatively easy final stretch against the Titans, Jets and Dolphins. And based on Sunday night's show in Houston, there's little reason to believe the Pats won't win all of those before making another run in January.
That vision of Brady back in his home state, in the venue belonging to his favorite boyhood team, with a chance to trump San Francisco's own Joe Montana by winning a fifth championship? That's moving closer to reality week by week.
Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012.