Danny Picard: Patriots right back in AFC driver's seat - Metro US

Danny Picard: Patriots right back in AFC driver’s seat

The return of Rob Gronkowski makes all the difference in the world for the Patriots.
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So that was interesting. For a few weeks, at least.

The New England Patriots lost their first game of the season on Nov. 29, in Denver, to a Broncos team that was without Peyton Manning. They also lost Rob Gronkowski to — what looked like at the time — a serious knee injury. That was Week 12, and as frustrated as a lot of us here in New England might have been, there were a couple things that eased the pain. First and foremost, Denver and the Cincinnati Bengals had already lost two games each, so the Patriots hadn’t completely fallen off the throne just yet. Also, with Philadelphia, Houston, Tennessee, New York, and Miami on the back end of the schedule, the Patriots’ road to remaining the top seed in the AFC didn’t seem too difficult.Then came the loss to the Eagles at Gillette Stadium.

Whatever that was.

I still can’t believe what happened in that game. Makes no sense. As the Patriots were suddenly knocked out of a first-round bye and down to the No. 3 seed, confusion and frustration began turning to hope late last week, as Gronkowski and Julian Edelman returned to practice. Gronkowski returned in Sunday’s 27-6 win over the Texans in Houston. And combined with a Cincinnati loss to Pittsburgh — with Andy Dalton breaking his thumb in the process — and Denver somehow losing to Oakland, the 11-2 Patriots jumped right back up to the No. 1 seed in the AFC.

Edelman has yet to return to game action, and losing LeGarrette Blount and Dominique Easley for the year certainly won’t make the rest of the season a cakewalk. But you should feel a whole lot better knowing that the Patriots once again control their own destiny when it comes to holding onto the top spot in the conference.The three games that New England has remaining are against Tennessee, New York, and Miami. Only one of those teams — the Jets — has a chance to make the playoffs. The Jets are realistically in a three-team race for the two wild-card spots in the AFC. And nothing is guaranteed, with Kansas City having one of the easier schedules in the league the rest of the way, and with Pittsburgh looking like one of the NFL’s most dangerous teams.The Patriots could very well end the Jets’ season on Dec. 27 if the Chiefs and Steelers take care of their own business. Before that though, the Pats will have to defeat the Titans.

Barring another major collapse like the one we saw two weeks ago against Philadelphia, Tom Brady and Bill Belichick will lead their team to a 12th win. Then they’ll watch the late games to see if AJ McCarron can lead the Bengals to a win over the 49ers in San Francisco, or if the Broncos can slow down the Steelers in Pittsburgh. It’s crunch time in the NFL, and the Patriots are trying to make sure the road to Super Bowl 50 goes through Foxboro. Something that, two weeks ago, suddenly became a major concern.

But don’t worry. All is once again right in the football world. The Patriots are back on top. And the only way they’ll be dethroned is if they cut off their own head.

Listen to “The Danny Picard Show” every weekday at dannypicard.com & on iTunes. Danny can also be heard weekends on WEEI 93.7 FM. Follow him on Twitter @DannyPicard.

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