Pats await Broncos, Steelers or Bengals in playoffs

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Pats await Broncos, Steelers or Bengals in playoffs

FOXBORO -- So now we know who the Patriots can't play in their first-round playoff game two weeks from now at Gillette Stadium: They can't play the Ravens or the Texans. (Actually, they knew going into today that they couldn't play the Texans . . . but that's besides the point.)
That means it'll be either Denver, Pittsburgh or Cincinnati coming to Foxboro for what the NFL calls the "divisional round", but is, in actuality, the AFC semifinals.

And we now also know that one of those teams will play the Patriots on Saturday, January 14, at 8 p.m.

Here's how it shook out:
The Ravens clinched the AFC North title, and the No. 2 seed, by beating the Bengals, 24-16. Baltimore, like New England, receives a first-round bye.
Cincinnati, however, qualified for the playoffs despite the loss because both the Broncos and Raiders lost. (The Bengals only needed one of them to lose, but both came through.) They're the No. 6 seed, and they'll travel to Houston for a wild-card weekend matchup next Saturday.
Because both the Broncos and Raiders lost, Denver -- and Tim Tebow -- won the AFC West and the No. 4 seed. Denver lost to Kansas City, 7-3, but got help from San Diego, which beat Oakland, 38-26. The Broncos are seeded fourth and will host the Steelers, the No. 5 seed, in a wild-card matchup on Sunday.
The Steelers finished 12-4 after their 13-9 win over the Browns, but -- because they lost both their meetings with Baltimore this year -- had to finish with a better record than the Ravens to win the AFC North. They both went 12-4, and thus Baltimore gets the division title.
In the 1 p.m. games, the Jets eliminated themselves with a 19-17 loss at Miami that drew raucous cheers from the Gillette Stadium crowd. The Titans won a thriller,beating the Texans, 23-22, to keep their hopes alive for a few hours, but the Jets' loss meant that Tennessee could only make it if the Bengals lost and both the Raiders and Broncos won. Their trifecta didn't come through.
So the conference seeds are: 1, New England. 2, Baltimore. 3, Houston. 4, Denver. 5, Pittsburgh. 6, Cincinnati. Next weekend, the matchups are 3 vs. 6 and 4 vs. 5. Then they'll be reseeded, and the Pats will play the No. 4 seed.
(The reason they can't play Baltimore or Houston? The Ravens are guaranteed to be the No. 2 seed, and the Texans, if they win next weekend, will be the No. 3.)
For the Patriots to avoid the Steelers -- whom, we must assume, will beat Denver next weekend -- in the first round, the Bengals must win in Houston.

Report: Patriots DT Branch wins appeal of four-game suspension

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Report: Patriots DT Branch wins appeal of four-game suspension

FOXBORO -- Alan Branch knew he had a good case, otherwise he wouldn't have appealed. It was just a question of when that appeal might be heard. 

As of Wednesday, the Patriots defensive tackle hadnt heard anything as it related to the appeal of his four-game suspension. But by Saturday morning, according to Field Yates of ESPN, Branch had won the appeal and been cleared of the league's ban. 

Word of Branch's punishment stemming from a positive marijuana test became public when reported by ESPN on Nov. 21. Per the league's substance abuse policy, appeal hearings are typically scheduled for the fourth Tuesday after a player has been informed of his penalty. The policy notes that it is possible for appeals to be heard on another date should the two sides be able to work out different schedule, but Branch was not optimistic that would be the case earlier this week. 

Good news came quickly, apparently. 

Had Branch been forced to miss any time, it would have docked the Patriots arguably their top interior defensive lineman. Branch has started every game, and he leads all Patriots defensive tackles with 457 snaps played. 

The Patriots recently waived running back DJ Foster and signed defensive tackle Darius Kilgo, seemingly as a way to build some depth on the roster behind Branch if Branch had been suspended. 

By having his four-game suspension wiped away not only are the Patriots saved from having to deal without one of their top players in the trenches, but Branch saved himself a relatively hefty financial penalty.

A four-game ban would have cost him nearly $300,000 in base salary as well as four game-day bonuses adding to $100,000. And he stood to lose as much as $750,000 in season-long playing-time incentives. In all, had the suspension stood, it could have cost him about $1.1 million. Patriots salary-cap expert Miguel Benzan goes into more detail about the potential financial impact of Branch's suspension here

Thankfully for Branch, he doesn't have to worry about that any longer. With this situation in the rear view, he can focus on helping the Patriots win games during the stretch run of the regular season and into the playoffs.