New England Patriots

By Matt Dolloff,

Even in a season where it’s been harder than usual for the Patriots to earn their wins and seeding, the proverbial pieces may be starting to fall into place in Foxboro.

Six days after the Kansas City Chiefs finally dropped another game in a 54-51 loss to the Rams, inching the Patriots to within one game of overtaking them for the No. 1 seed in the AFC, the Steelers helped the Pats even more. New England is now in the No. 2 seed in the conference after taking care of business against the New York Jets, while the Steelers couldn’t take care of theirs in a 24-17 road loss to the Denver Broncos.

The AFC is still the Chiefs’ conference to lose, but they have a tough schedule coming up with home games against the Chargers and Ravens, plus a trip to Seattle against the Seahawks. The Patriots, meanwhile, have the Vikings and Steelers, plus one more round through the AFC East. The Pats’ schedule is decidedly easier, so they should have a better chance of running the table the rest of the way.

That would mean they beat the Steelers in Pittsburgh, which would all but sew up a first-round bye. And while they still need to root for the Chiefs to stumble again, it shouldn’t surprise anyone if K.C. goes 2-1 against L.A., Seattle, and Baltimore.

With all that in mind, here’s a quick run through what you should know about the AFC in Week 12.

Steelers have a letdown. They were due for this, riding a six-game winning streak. It kind of should’ve been seen coming, because Denver is a tough place for anyone to win and the Broncos just upset the Chargers the week before. Ben Roethlisberger had a chance to tie the game with 1:07 left in regulation, but threw just a horrendous interception in the end zone. It was on third down, so there was really no need to make this who-was-he-even-targeting throw:

So the Steelers are now 7-3-1, giving the 8-3 Patriots a huge leg up for the No. 2 seed in the conference. Assuming they both win their next two, it’ll still be a must-win for both teams to maintain that second spot. But all the pressure will be on the Steelers to get the job done on their home field in that game.

Chargers get back on track with blowout win. The Broncos also did the Patriots a favor during their bye week, when they beat the Chargers in Los Angeles. But L.A. bounced back in a major way with a 45-10 win over the Arizona Cardinals, a game in which Philip Rivers set a new NFL record by going 28-for-29 passing (97 percent). Rivers sat out nearly the entire fourth quarter in the win.

The Chargers have the same record as the Patriots at 8-3. They’re still putting more pressure on the Chiefs to keep winning, since only one of them can take the division. But they’re also putting pressure on the Patriots to get their bye, because that’s not exactly a team you’d be excited about playing on Wild Card Weekend.

Colts continue to surge. Andrew Luck has officially regained his 2014 form, and you could easily argue he’s having his best season as a pro. He’s posted a 109.8 passer rating so far, and his previous career high is 96.5. Lo and behold, the Colts are surging with a 6-5 record; they’ve won five in a row after starting 1-5, the latest win coming over the Dolphins. Yet another favor for the Patriots.

Although the Colts didn’t play particularly well as a team against the Patriots in Week 5, Luck played out of his mind in the second half and nearly rallied the team before the Pats pulled away. This is another team that wouldn’t be fun to face in a wild card game, especially for the Patriots defense.

Cyrus Jones sighting in Ravens win. Baltimore took care of its own business with a 34-17 home win over the Oakland Raiders. And they did it partially with help from old friend Cyrus Jones, who did what he could never accomplish as a returner for the Patriots: return a punt for a touchdown.

Jones is a Baltimore native, so good for him to achieve a dream scenario in front of his hometown fans. There’s still a chance he realizes his potential as a punt returner that he was never able to reach as a Patriot. But more importantly for New England, the Ravens are now in the No. 6 seed in the conference. If that holds, that would REALLY be a team that you wouldn’t want the Patriots to face in a Wild Card game.

Josh Allen and the Bills get the last laugh against Jalen Ramsey and the Jaguars. Ramsey continued to embarrass himself with more jackass behavior in this game, which the Bills won 24-21. Allen mocked Ramsey’s signature celebration after the cornerback called the QB and others on Buffalo “trash” – even during the game. Well, now the Jaguars are 3-8 and have lost seven straight, going 1-8 since winning the Super Bowl over the Patriots in Week 2. So who’s the real trash now?

Baker Mayfield gets revenge on Hue Jackson. This game had no bearing on the playoff picture, but it was still entertaining to watch. Mayfield lit up the Bengals for four touchdown passes, and did his best to snub his former head coach after the game. Mayfield pulled no punches in his postgame presser, either, admitting he didn’t want to talk much to Jackson for jumping ship to the Bengals just weeks after the Browns dismissed him.

Monday night: The Texans will be the final piece of the Week 12 puzzle for the Patriots. Ideally, they lose to the Titans, who would move to 6-5 but still not into the wild card. Dropping to 7-4 would likely seal the Texans’ fate as a wild card team and make the Patriots’ road to a bye that much easier. Not that Houston should be considered a significant threat to the top-2 seeds, but ideally they stumble like the Steelers did.

Things are starting to break the Patriots’ way in the AFC. We’ll see how Kansas City and Pittsburgh play from here, but the Pats suddenly have that top seed in their sights. As long as they take care of their business like they often do in December, there’s a good chance they jump over the teams who can’t.

Matt Dolloff is a digital producer for Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff or email him at