There are no fewer than six teams in the running for the second AFC wild-card spot, but after their come-from-behind win over Denver Sunday night, the Patriots put even more distance between themselves and those clubs — in position to claim one of the conference’s two opening-round byes.
Now 8-3 with five games to play, the AFC East leaders are the No. 2 seed behind the 9-2 Broncos, who lead the AFC West. The 7-4 Colts are the No. 3 seed as AFC South leader, and AFC North front-runner Cincinnati, also 7-4, is the fourth seed.
Kansas City, which is also 9-2 in the West but lost its first head-to-head matchup with Denver two weeks ago, has the first wild-card spot, while the Titans currently own the second.
Tennessee, the second-place team in the South, is one of a half-dozen teams with a 5-6 record (Pittsburgh, Baltimore, San Diego, the Jets, and Miami are the others) but right now they would get the spot through tiebreakers. The fact that three of the Titans’ wins have come against the Steelers, Chargers, and Jets is part of the reason things tip in their favor.
Had the Patriots lost to the Broncos, they would have slipped to the No. 4 seed behind Indianapolis and Cincinnati because the Colts would have had a better conference record and the Bengals beat New England head-to-head.
But now, not only have the Patriots regained the second spot, they have put themselves in position to potentially get the top seed because they hold that all-important head-to-head win over Denver.
The Broncos travel to Kansas City this weekend, then finish at home with the Titans and Chargers and on the road with the Texans and Raiders. The Chiefs host Denver, then go on the road for three of their final four games: at Washington, at Oakland, home vs. the Colts, and at San Diego.
New England’s remaining schedule looks a lot easier than it once did: at Houston this week, hosting the Browns, travel to Baltimore and Miami, then close with the Bills at home.
The games against the Ravens and Dolphins aren’t gimmes by any stretch, and both teams play the Patriots tough. As was reinforced Sunday night, however, anything is possible, including the Patriots running the table and putting themselves in prime postseason position.
Fletcher steps in
Dont’a Hightower started Sunday’s game at linebacker alongside Jamie Collins (the Patriots opened in a 4-2-5 alignment), but he didn’t play for long: the second-year player was benched for the second half, with Dane Fletcher playing in his place.
The move was performance-based, not because of injury.
“It was an adjustment that we needed to make,” said Bill Belichick. “[Fletcher] was well-prepared and stepped in there and did a good job. It certainly wasn’t perfect by any stretch, but our front four — our front six, really, most of the game we were in nickel — those guys competed hard.”
Fletcher, undrafted out of Montana State in 2010, missed all of the 2012 season because of a torn ACL suffered in the preseason. Belichick praised his rehab and work ethic during training camp this year, and talked about his on-field smarts in recent weeks, when Fletcher was mentioned as a possible replacement for Jerod Mayo.
But even with Mayo’s season-ending injury, Fletcher wasn’t seeing a lot of defensive snaps before Sunday night. He ended up playing 57 of 90, with seven tackles (four solo) and a forced fumble in the third quarter that set up the Patriots’ second touchdown.
Hightower played 33 snaps, with three total tackles.
After seeing an uptick in his involvement in recent games, Aaron Dobson played just 36 (of 87) snaps against Denver and wasn’t targeted once by Tom Brady. The rookie was targeted 16 times total against the Panthers and Steelers, with nine catches for 168 yards and two touchdowns, the bulk of those numbers coming against the Steelers . . . The win over Denver guaranteed that the Patriots will finish .500 or better for the 13th consecutive season. The last time they weren’t at least 8-8 was 2000, Belichick’s first year as head coach. They were 5-11 that season . . . Chandler Jones became the 10th player in franchise history to record double-digit sacks in a season, with his first-quarter sack of Peyton Manning giving him 10½ through 11 games . . . NBC announced that Patriots-Broncos drew a 17.0 rating and 28 share for “Sunday Night Football,” the highest numbers for a November prime-time game in 17 years and a 26 percent increase over last year’s Week 12 SNF matchup, Green Bay at the Giants (13.5 rating).Shalise Manza Young can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @shalisemyoung.