Patriots on track for playoff bye

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Patriots on track for playoff bye

The Patriots' defense is dotted with guys who weren't here in August. Their offense doesn't much resemble what we saw at the start of the season. Hands wring. Teeth gnash. And yet, they are currently the No. 2 seed in the AFC playoff race. If you check that handy-dandy link up there, you'll see that NFL.com has all the permutations. Right now, the Pats (7-3) are one-half game behind Baltimore (8-3).
But things look promising for New England. If the Pats win Sunday, they'll go back to the top of the conference because they have a better conference record than Baltimore (6-2 to 5-2). The other 7-3 team in the AFC is Houston, but the Texans are going to be quarterbacked by Matt Leinart now that starter Matt Schaub has gone to IR. Their hold on the AFC South is a two-game edge over Tennessee which, if it overtakes Houston and wins the division, will be hamstrung by four conference losses already (4-4 in the AFC). The Raiders are leading the AFC West and the Patriots have a head-to-head win over them. The fly in the ointment could be the Steelers, who have a head-to-head win over the Patriots. Currently they're 7-3, as well, but they'll have to overtake Baltimore record-wise to win the division because the Ravens beat Pittsburgh twice. Even if Pittsburgh beats out Baltimore, the Patriots will likely get the second seed because they are a division winner. We're forecasting a nosedive from Houston with that scenario. The rumbled-about move for playoff seeding to be done wholly based on record is often broached but hasn't gathered enough steam to be voted on at the NFL Owners Meetings in March. So it's a very real possibility that the Patriots could finish up with a worse recordthan the Steelers -- not to mention that head-to-head loss against them -- and still have Wild Card weekend to rest up while Pittsburgh has to play Houston, Tennessee, Denver or Oakland on the road. Teeth will gnash. Hands will wring.

Patriots-Steelers injury report: Seven Pats listed as questionable

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Patriots-Steelers injury report: Seven Pats listed as questionable

FOXBORO -- The Patriots will head into Sunday's AFC title game with seven players listed as questionable, including three receivers. 

Danny Amendola, Malcolm Mitchell and Chris Hogan have all been limited in practices this week due to their injuries. Amendola has been dealing with an ankle issue since a Week 13 win over the Rams, while Mitchell has not played since injuring his knee in Week 16 against the Jets. Hogan suffered a thigh injury against the Texans and left the game in the third quarter.

Both Hogan and Mitchell indicated this week that they were moving in the right direction in terms of their recoveries. One would think that the Patriots would need at least one, if not both, to help stress the back end of the Steelers secondary this weekend.

Hogan has been the team's most consistent down-the-field threat this season, averaging a whopping 17.9 yards per catch during the regular season. Against the Texans, before his injury, he reeled in four passes for 95 yards. 

Mitchell, meanwhile, had a very productive second half of his rookie season before he was hurt. He compiled 25 catches for 306 yards between Weeks 11 and 16, establishing himself as one of Tom Brady's go-to targets. 

The overall health of the Patriots receiving corps -- which will also include Julian Edelman and Michael Floyd -- will bear watching when the Patriots and Steelers kick off in two days.

The injury report for Sunday's Patriots-Steelers game:

NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS

QUESTIONABLE
WR Danny Amendola (ankle)
TE Martellus Bennett (knee)
RB Brandon Bolden (knee)
LB Dont'a Hightower (shoulder)
WR Chris Hogan (thigh)
WR Malcolm Mitchell (knee)
DL Jabaal Sheard (knee)

PITTSBURGH STEELERS

QUESTIONABLE
TE Ladarius Green (concussion/illness)
LB James Harrison (shoulder/triceps)
RB Fitzgerald Toussaint (concussion)

NOT LISTED
RB Le'Veon Bell (not injury related)
K Chris Boswell (illness)
LB Anthony Chickillo (ankle)
S Sean Davis (shoulder)
C B.J. Finney (illness)
WR Darrius Heyward-Bay (illness)
DE Ricardo Mathews (ankle)
QB Zach Mettenberger (illness)
S Michael Mitchell (not injury related)
QB Ben Roethlisberger (not injury related)
LB Vince Williams (shoulder)