Mark it on your calendar. Sunday, Jan. 22, the AFC Championship Game, at Gillette Stadium.
If the playoffs began today, the New England Patriots would be the No. 1 seed in the conference. That’s entering Week 8, with a 6-1 record, and just one more game before their bye in Week 9.
With nine games left to play, it’s hard not to look at the rest of the Patriots’ schedule to see who — if anyone — has a chance to spoil their plans of hosting the AFC title game. There will be a few tests along the way, but at this point, nothing dangerous enough to change what’s already been settled: New England is the best team in the AFC, if not the entire NFL.
In a league where the unexpected seems to hit you over the head every single weekend, the Patriots are the only sure thing. Not only will the Pats win, but they’ll most likely cover the spread as well, especially with Tom Brady back under center.
Since Brady’s return from his four-game Deflategate suspension, he’s thrown for over 1,000 yards with eight touchdowns and zero interceptions in just three games — all wins. And in case you’re keeping score at home, the Patriots covered the spread in all three of those games, twice as favorites on the road.
The Pats are 6-1 against the spread this season, with their only loss against the spread coming in their only loss of the season. That was a little less than four weeks ago, when they were shut out 16-0 at home by the Buffalo Bills.
How many teams do you know that get shut out by a team in their own building, hit the road to take on that same team later the same month, and end up being a seven-point road favorite? There’s really only one. And that’s the Patriots.
I know what you might be thinking. “What does covering the spread have to do with hosting the AFC Championship Game?” Well, at this rate, unless something unexpectedly drastic happens, they’ll probably be favorites in every game moving forward — yes, even at Denver in Week 15. And if that’s the case, then covering the spread would mean it’s a win in the standings.
But back to that. Right now, the Pats are in first place in the AFC East, and it’s the Bills who are below them at 4-3. A win in Buffalo this Sunday would all but seal the deal on another division title for New England. Then the question becomes, who can compete with the Patriots for the top spot in the AFC?
Entering Week 8, the 5-2 Oakland Raiders are the No. 2 seed in the conference, followed by the 4-3 Pittsburgh Steelers at No. 3, the 4-3 Houston Texans at No. 4, the 5-2 Denver Broncos at No. 5, and the 4-2 Kansas City Chiefs at No. 6.
After Buffalo, New England plays at home against Seattle, at San Francisco, at New York (Jets), at home against Los Angeles, at home against Baltimore, at Denver, at home against New York (Jets), and at Miami. The only games that aren’t guaranteed wins are against Seattle in Week 10, at Denver in Week 15, and one of the two road divisional games in New York and Miami. But to say I’m “scared” of those games would be a lie.
The Patriots went 3-1 without Brady and, for the most part, without Rob Gronkowski. You could make the argument that Brady and Gronkowski are the two most dominant players to ever play the game at their respective positions. Without them, the Patriots were still able to win three-of-four. Now, Brady has returned and has promised to wreak havoc on the rest of the league. But the ultimate goal is still to have commissioner Roger Goodell hand him the Lombardi Trophy in Houston on Feb. 5.
The best chance to get there is to have home field throughout the playoffs. Right now, the Patriots are sitting pretty in that top spot in the AFC.
And I don’t see how they could possibly lose it.