It’s been a crazy year. And the New England Patriots, so far, have survived it all.
First, Tom Brady was suspended the first four games of the regular season. Then, Rob Gronkowski had back surgery and was placed on season-ending injured reserve after a Week 12 win over the New York Jets.
Throughout it all, the Patriots’ defense was trying to capture an identity. Tough to do when the heart and soul of that defense — Rob Ninkovich — was suspended the first four games of the year after testing positive for a banned substance. Even tougher to do when you trade your most athletic defensive player — Jamie Collins — after a Week 8 win over the Bills in Buffalo.
And from Jabaal Sheard’s healthy scratch, to Stephen Gostkowski’s sporadic case of the yips, to Danny Amendola’s ankle injury, New England’s season has been the complete opposite of how you’d “draw it up.”
Yet, here are the Patriots, setting themselves up for a storybook ending.
At 12-2 through Week 15, the Pats are the No. 1 seed in the AFC. They clinched the division and a first-round bye with Sunday’s 16-3 win over the Broncos in Denver. The only teams challenging them for that No. 1 seed in the AFC are the 11-3 Oakland Raiders and the 10-4 Kansas City Chiefs.
First thing’s first, let’s take a look at what the Patriots have left. They’ll host the 4-10 New York Jets on Christmas Eve. It’s a game in which New England opened as a 16-point favorite, and rightfully so. Then, the Patriots finish the regular season on New Year’s Day in Miami, against a 9-5 Dolphins team that will most likely be fighting for a playoff spot.
But if the Patriots defeat the Jets in Week 16, then that will be their 10th win in the conference. The Chiefs currently have seven conference wins, which would give New England the tiebreaker over Kansas City, even if Kansas City won their final two games, against Denver and San Diego.
So realistically, the only team challenging the Pats for the top seed is Oakland. But a Patriots win over the Jets and a Raiders loss in either of their final two games — against Indianapolis and Denver — would clinch that No. 1 seed for New England.
Basically, the Patriots control their own destiny. It’s looking like the road to the Super Bowl, in the AFC, will go through Gillette Stadium. And that must be driving the rest of the NFL crazy.
How many teams would be able to function like the Patriots did, given the circumstances they faced all season long?
This can be an ugly league, which has never seemed more unpredictable than in 2016. Then, you have the Patriots. Set up for a possible 14-2 season while spending a good amount of time trying to perform under not-so-ideal situations. Those situations being, a suspended quarterback to begin the season, and the loss of one of the most dangerous receivers in football.
Still, Bill Belichick found a way. Tom Brady then found a way. The Patriots, like they usually do, found a way.
Now, someone else in the AFC will have to find a way to go into Foxboro and beat Belichick, Brady, and an all-of-a-sudden championship-caliber defense in January.
Crazy to think that somebody will be able to do that. Even crazier to think that, after everything that’s gone wrong so far for the Patriots in 2016, this script could end with Roger Goodell handing the Lombardi Trophy to Brady in Houston on Feb. 5.
It’s been a crazy year. Now, the only thing crazy would be the Patriots not going to the Super Bowl.
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