Six weeks still remain in the 2014 NFL regular season. With each passing Sunday, however, it becomes more and more clear that the AFC will run through Foxborough.
The Patriots won their sixth straight game on Sunday night, 42-20 over the Colts, a mere two weeks after an emphatic blowout of the Broncos. They maintained their two-game lead in the AFC East on Miami and now hold a one-game lead (plus tiebreakers over Denver and Indianapolis) in the race for home-field advantage throughout the conference playoffs.
Three thoughts on New England's latest win:
1. The Patriots' game plan on offense was clear and effective all night
On Jonas Gray's fourth -- yes, fourth -- rushing touchdown Sunday night, Rob Gronkowski finished his block on Sergio Brown with so much indignation that he was handed a 15-yard penalty for unnecessary roughness and then another for taunting.
After opening the game with three straight passes, the Patriots shifted into smash-mouth mode and proceeded to hammer Indianapolis. They did so by leaning on Gray (38 carries for 199 yards) and repeatedly trotting Cameron Erving onto the field as a sixth offensive lineman for a between-the-tackles edge.
The Colts had no answers. New England simply beat them down.
"A lot of times that's what we're best at," Gray told NBC's Michele Tafoya of his team's downhill attack. "We got the opportunity to do it, we got a lot of positive gains, don't change it up."
If the Patriots had any remaining statement to make following a five-game win streak, they delivered it in Indianapolis.
Only a ghastly Tom Brady interception right before halftime maintained any semblance of drama. He and his teammates answered that miscue with an eight-play, 80-yard touchdown drive to open the third quarter. Gray did most of the work there, carrying the ball four straight times mid-possession to set up a Brady-to-Tim Wright touchdown pass.
The lack of a counter-punch has become a recurring theme for the Colts' defense. The four best offenses on their schedule to date -- Denver, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and New England -- have hung averages of 38.5 points and nearly 500 yards per game on Indianapolis. For a team with Super Bowl aspirations, that's highly troubling.
Few defenders would have had success against the Patriots on Sunday, though. Led by Gray's incredible outing, New England put on a show.
2. Two potentially huge injuries for Indianapolis
Every team is hobbling some by this point in the season, so there will be no sympathy cards dropped on the Colts' doorstep. But the AFC South leaders will be crossing their fingers that the injuries to TE Dwayne Allen and RB Ahmad Bradshaw are not of the long-term variety.
Allen left early Sunday night before making a catch, then needed a cart to get to the locker room. Bradshaw limped off two quarters later, reportedly with an ankle injury.
The loss of either player into Week 12 and beyond could be devastating to the Colts' offense.
That's especially true on the ground, where Bradshaw remains the superior option to Trent Richardson. Neither guy was able to roll Sunday -- they combined for four yards rushing on 14 carries -- but Bradshaw has provided value at least in the passing attack that Richardson cannot match.
Meanwhile, Allen entered Sunday leading the Colts in touchdown receptions with seven. A silver lining there, if Indianapolis can find one, is that Coby Fleener may finally be on the verge of a legitimate breakthrough. He followed up a 77-yard performance in the Colts' last game with seven catches for 144 yards against the visiting Patriots.
Consider it a start. The Colts may need a lot more from Fleener and others if Allen and Bradshaw miss more time.
3. Jamie Collins is a burgeoning star
As they've done with Gray in the backfield, the Patriots continue to excel with the next-man-up philosophy.
Jamie Collins is more of a familiar name than Gray, who's just a month removed from being on the practice squad. The Patriots still have to be overjoyed at what he has provided this season, in particular over the past couple games as injuries threatened to derail New England's linebacking corps.
The 24-year-old Collins helped set the tone for the Patriots' defense Sunday night, chalking up a team-leading eight tackles. His best of the night came on a third-down pass to Ahmad Bradshaw -- Collins tracked him across the field, then wrapped up Bradshaw as the Colts' running back attempted to turn toward the first-down marker.
Indianapolis ought to be plenty familiar with the second-year linebacker by now. Collins spearheaded the Patriots' playoff win over the Colts last season, stepping into the void caused by a Brandon Spikes injury.
He has seen far more playing time in year two of his NFL career than he did in year one, yet it's been the past month or so that Collins has taken his game to another level. We saw how he has done so again Sunday: with an athleticism that allows him to be equally adept covering guys like Bradshaw as he is hitting a gap at the line of scrimmage.
The overarching story for New England's defense Sunday night may be how well it stymied T.Y. Hilton, holding the Colts' star to three catches and 24 yards. The play of Collins and the front seven helped make that performance possible.
"It put a lot of pressure on Andrew [Luck]," Darrelle Revis said of the Collins-led work up front. "We just tried to play tight coverage on the back end, and it worked out well together."