The New England Patriots have wrapped up the AFC East division title. They are currently tied with the Baltimore Ravens and Houston Texans for the number two seed in the AFC. And while a first round bye would be a welcome prize, regaining full health is more important. That will be the Patriots top priority for the remainder of the season.
While the Patriots have a shot at the AFC’s number two seed, it’s a tall task. The next two games, while at home, are against two of the best teams in the league. Next week the Patriots take on a Texans team that sits at 11-1 and will be coming in looking to wrap up home field advantage. The next week they will welcome an 8-3-1 San Francisco 49ers team that has been very strong for the majority of the year. Even though they lost last week to the lowly St. Louis Rams, just three weeks ago they put up 32 points against the best defense in the league.
Following those tough pair of games come two games that should be relatively easy wins. The Miami Dolphins are out of playoff contention and the Jacksonville Jaguars are the worst team in the league. Likely winning two out of the next four games won’t get the Patriots a bye in the first round but that shouldn’t be their main concern.
The Patriots have been dealing with injuries all year. In week two they lost Pro Bowl tight end Aaron Hernandez for six weeks to an ankle injury. Just one week later they lost wide receiver Julian Edelman to a hand injury which kept him out of three games. He suffered another injury, this time to his foot, in the fourth quarter Sunday and left Sun Life Stadium on crutches. Right now the Patriots are playing without several players which include tight end Rob Gronkowski, offensive linemen Logan Mankins and Sebastian Vollmer, defensive end Chandler Jones, and cornerback Ras-I Dowling. In addition to those losses, safety Patrick Chung has just returned from an injury.
The Patriots will likely have most of these players back this season but possibly not until the playoffs begin. They certainly can’t afford any more injuries. The current roster can beat teams like the Dolphins, Jets, and maybe a first round opponent but any more injuries will almost certainly doom the Patriots against a foe like the Texans or Broncos.
Sitting your key players is not an option for the Patriots with four games remaining but Bill Belichick needs to be cautious with them. Three weeks ago against the Indianapolis Colts Gronkowski had been taken out of the game for offensive plays with the outcome no longer in question but Belichick put him in for a late extra point. Gronkowski injured his arm on the play which required surgery keeping him out possibly for the remainder of the regular season. That should be a lesson to the Patriots coaching staff that a key player can suffer an injury any time he’s on the field.
The Patriots are now AFC East champions for the fourth straight season sealing their spot in the postseason. Worst case scenario they will host a game in the wild card round. With that in mind, plus the fact that they face two of the toughest teams in the league over the next two weeks, the Patriots top priority should be to keep their key players healthy. If the Patriots can avoid losing any more crucial members of the team, they have the ability to repeat as AFC champions.