Now, what do the Patriots have left to prove, and who can they prove it against?
The Patriots' 41-16 Sunday night victory in Denver was boring in the most impressive way possible. After a three-and-out on the opening possession, New England was on the receiving end of a muffed punt and then proceeded to dominate in every phase over the remaining 58 minutes and 30 seconds. The special teams stole the show (in typical Bill Belichick fashion), as Dion Lewis returned a kickoff 103 yards, Rex Burkhead blocked a punt, and they even caught Denver in a late substitution on a punt, picking up a first down. Of course Tom Brady was Tom Brady as well, completing 73.5% of his passes, throwing three touchdowns and no interceptions while generally staying away from the Broncos' vaunted corners.
On defense, the Patriots weren't great on third down (Denver converted 8 of 15 opportunities), but they didn't give Brock Osweiler any easy plays, and the rest of the team put together such a lead that Vance Joseph had to turn away from what was a successful rushing attack. The bottom line? New England's fifth straight victory was its most complete. And it comes with seemingly few capable challengers to the AFC throne.
The NFC has four teams with at least seven wins while the AFC has two: New England and Pittsburgh. The Steelers hardly looked like a title contender against a depleted Colts squad, the black and gold offense still failing to live up to the talent at Ben Roethlisberger's disposal. And who else could be in the mix in January? The Jaguars pulled out a home win over the Chargers but a series of after-the-play flags nearly cost them the game, while the Titans barely held off the Bengals. The Chiefs, off this week, are on a three-game losing streak, and the Raiders' season could be dealt a death blow next week against the Pats in Mexico City.
There was a time earlier this season when it seemed like New England might even have to deal with intradivisional competition for the first time in a decade. (No really, there was.) At this point, what else would the Patriots have to do to prove they're still far and away the class of the AFC? Who would they have to prove it against?
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1. Falcons 27, Cowboys 7. Without suspended running back Ezekiel Elliott (and, perhaps more importantly, injured left tackle Tyron Smith), Dallas's offense ground to a halt (233 total yards) in Atlanta. Adrian Clayborn set a Falcons record with six sacks in the victory, picking on Smith replacement Chaz Green. Dallas also lost linebacker Sean Lee to a hamstring injury, allowing the Falcons to pull away in the second half. Both of these teams are now 5-4, squarely in the second tier of NFC contenders for the time being.
2. Patriots 41, Broncos 16. You have to search far and wide for a positive in Denver. Emmanuel Sanders had 137 yards receiving, I guess. But otherwise, Vance Joseph's first season has gone from bad to worse.
3. Vikings 38, Washington 30. Case Keenum threw two interceptions in the second half to keep Washington in the ballgame, but the QB threw four touchdowns first, earning a road win and probably another start, even with Teddy Bridgewater active again.
4. Steelers 20, Colts 17. Pittsburgh rallied for 11 fourth-quarter points to earn the W in Indianapolis. But the 7-2 Steelers still leave with questions about their talented offense, which ranks 18th in points per game and struggled for most of this one against a depleted Colts defense. Antonio Brown only had 47 receiving yards, though JuJu Smith-Schuster had another big game: 97 yards and a score on five catches.
5. Titans 24, Bengals 20. A 100% healthy Marcus Mariota threw for 264 yards and ran for 51 more. More notably, he led a 12-play, 73-yard drive to go ahead with 36 seconds left. Tennessee stays atop the AFC South, though it now heads to Pittsburgh for a Thursday nighter. In the loss, Cincinnati linebacker Vontaze Burfict was ejected for making contact with an official.
6. Saints 47, Bills 10. The Saints march (sorry) on. Drew Brees only threw for 184 yards as New Orleans racked up 298 on the ground, handing Buffalo its first home loss of the season and its second straight embarrassment.
7. Packers 23, Bears 16. Brett Hundley earned his first win despite Green Bay losing its top two running backs to injury on the road, thanks in part to a regrettable Chicago challenge in the first half that turned a Bears first-and-goal situation into Packers' ball.
8. Rams 33, Texans 7. They started slow, but L.A. ultimately outgained Houston, 443-283, and forced four turnovers (all from Tom Savage) in moving to 7-2.
9. Jaguars 20, Chargers 17 (OT). This game was wild. Jacksonville seemed done after a Blake Bortles interception with 1:33 left in the game, but the Jags got the ball back 30 seconds later, and ex-Chargers kicker Josh Lambo hit a 34-yarder to tie the game in the final moments, thanks in part to a Joey Bosa roughing the passer penalty that moved the ball into the red zone. In overtime, it was Philip Rivers who threw a pick, setting up another Lambo make—this time for the victory.
10. Lions 38, Browns 24. Cleveland was actually leading in the third and tied in the fourth, but Detroit scored 14 points on two of Matthew Stafford's three touchdowns to pull away, leaving the Browns as (spoiler alert) the only winless team left in the league. The result also made a first-half gaffe, when DeShone Kizer (who otherwise had one of his best games) cost the team points by audibling to a QB sneak with no timeouts left, all the more painful. At least Cleveland can hang onto this: The Detroit team it just played turned its fortunes around by drafting Stafford following an 0-16 season.
11. Buccaneers 15, Jets 10. In a battle of beleaguered QBs playing their former teams, Ryan Fitzpatrick's Bucs edged Josh McCown's Jets. Really, it was the Tampa defense that won the day, holding the visitors to less than 150 yards until late into the fourth quarter (a McCown touchdown pass with 28 seconds left made the game seem closer).
12. 49ers 31, Giants 21. C.J. Beathard, Kyle Shanahan, John Lynch, and the new Niners got their first win Sunday. Meanwhile, pressure ratchets up for New York coach Ben McAdoo.
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NFL celebrations have been fun this year, but clearly we still have a lot to learn from the folks north of the border.
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