The Patriots won big Monday night . . . and they didn't even have to play.
The Steelers' 20-3 loss to the 49ers on a night the power went out -- twice -- in San Francisco put the Pats in the driver's seat in the AFC playoff race. New England, at 11-3, now sits in the No. 1 seed in the playoff race over Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Houston, all at 10-4. For the Pats to clinch the top spot, all they have to do is beat both Miami (on Christmas Eve) and Buffalo (on New Year's Day) at Gillette Stadium. They could finish first even if they lose one or both, depending on what the Steelers, Ravens and Texans do, but beating those two 5-9 teams will guarantee it.
And what does the No. 1 seed mean?
A first-round bye, and
Home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs.
It guarantees nothing; the Patriots were the No. 1 seed last year, too, and got bounced by the Jets in their first playoff game. But no one can dispute it's easier to win a postseason game at home than it is on the road, and when it comes to the postseason, easier is better.
And thanks to the 49ers, the Pats now have it in their power to make it easier.