AFC contenders are finally in focus


AFC contenders are finally in focus

All things considered, it was a mighty successful bye week for the Patriots. First and foremost, there were no significant injuries (while the already-injured had a chance to re-charge). Second, no one got into trouble (there were no leaked photos of Gronk passed out naked at a sorority party, no controversial tweets from Brandon Spikes, no reports of Wes Welker getting drunk and taking a bat to Bill Belichicks mail box). And lastly, while they kept it cool off the field, the Pats took a stab at improving things between the lines, with the acquisition of cornerback Aqib Talib.

Some have argued that a fourth round pick was too much to give up for Talib whose promise and potential is only out-weighed by his horrible reputation. But I think a fourth-rounder is fine.

After all, in the 12 years since Belichick arrived in New England, hes made 16 fourth-round selections. Of the 16, only two materialized into Pro Bowlers (Asante Samuel and Stephen Gostkowski, although Aaron Hernandez should become No. 3), only four others developed into serviceable pros, even if only for a short time (Jarvis Green, James Sanders, Greg Robinson-Randall and Dan Klecko). And the other nine aka more than 50 percent of Belichicks fourth round picks, aka Rich Ohrnberger, Jonathan Wilhite, Kareem Brown, Garrett Mills, Dexter Reid, Cedric Cobbs, Kenyatta Jones, Rohan Davey and Jabari Holloway were a waste.

Considering how desperate the Pats are in the secondary, Id say a fourth-rounder is worth the risk of bringing in a controversial first-round talent. Naturally, only time will tell, but theres more reason for optimism now that Talibs around than if the Pats had sat back and done nothing at the deadline.

And thats that. The bye week is over, and today, New England gets started on the second half of their season. It hasnt been an easy road to 5-3, but expectations remain the same. Its Super Bowl or bust. Super Bowl or freak out. And while many questions still linger as to whether they'll get there, after nine weeks, the rest of the AFC is finally taking shape around them, and the path to New Orleans is far clearer than it was before the Pats left for London.

First of all, lets close the book on the Bills, Jets, Bengals, Browns, Titans, Jaguars, Raiders and Chiefs theyre not making the playoffs.

Lets send some love and respect towards the Dolphins and Colts, two teams that have already reached heights that seemed impossible when the season began, but are still at least a year away from doing any post-season damage.

Lets recognize that theres a chance the Chargers sneak into the last playoff spot theyre 4-4 with an easy-ish schedule but that theres no fear of them having any success once they get there.

And finally, lets take a look at what remains. In a way, I think we all knew that this is what it would come down to, but at this point, its not a matter of thinking; its fact. After two months of parity and inconsistency, the AFC big wigs are established and quickly separating themselves from the pack. Its Houston, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Denver and New England. The only five teams with a chance. Five teams that will spend the next eight weeks jostling for position, ideally avoiding injury, and setting the stage for one of the more unpredictable, up-for-grabs AFC postseasons in recent memory.

Each contender faces its own line of important questions. For the Ravens, it's their broken down defense, and whether Joe Flacco can play big in the biggest games. For Denver, it's about whether Peyton can hold up over the long haul and whether losses to Atlanta, Houston and New England are a sign that they aren't quite up to snuff. For Houston, it's the unknown; the fact that they're still a young team, with a quarterback who's yet to even start, nevermind win, a playoff game. Pittsburgh faces questions of depth and health. Can they count on Troy Polamalu? How many hits can they take in the backfield and still maintain an even remotely balanced offense?

And as for the Pats, we all know about the questions they're facing. We know that they're far from perfect. Far from the juggernauts that we watched in 2003, 2004 or 2007. But the good news is that they don't have to play those teams this year. They don't have to be the best team in Patriots history. They just have to be better than the four remaining contenders in the chase for a berth in Super Bowl XLVII. And right now, coming out fresh after a productive bye, with Talib set to join the secondary in Week 11, the Pats remain on the path to doing just that.

Rich can be reached at Follow Rich on Twitter at http:twitter.comrich_levine

Five quick impressions: Patriots 27, Steelers 16

Five quick impressions: Patriots 27, Steelers 16

The Patriots went into Pittsburgh and beat an under-manned Steelers team Sunday afternoon, 27-16. Here are some of our quick takeaways.

PATRIOTS 27, STEELERS 16: Curran's Best and Worst | Troy Brown: Pittsburgh didn't capitalize on Pats' mistakes

-- With all eyes on the matchup between Antonio Brown and Malcolm Butler, the third-year Patriots corner held his own. After allowing nine catches for 133 yards to Brown in their first meeting last season, Butler allowed Brown to catch five passes for 90 yards Sunday. Butler also took advantage of some of the chances taken by Landry Jones, intercepting one pass intended for Brown in the end zone in the first quarter. Butler finished the day with two pass breakups and a pick on 10 targets. The four catches he allowed to Brown were the only catches he allowed in the game. 

-- Julian Edelman looked like Julian Edelman in the win. He caught 9 of the 10 targets sent his way for 60 yards, getting open underneath while seeing one-on-one coverage for much of the contest. Edelman has been on the injury report for the last two weeks, limited with a foot injury, but he was able to get open on the intermediate routes that has made him one of Tom Brady's favorite targets over the last few years. Edelman did have one drop on third down, and he did fumble a punt return, which allows us to . . . 

-- . . . take a look at what was a rough day for Patriots special teams units. Kicker Stephen Gostkowski missed yet another extra point -- his second in as many weeks. He has now missed five kicks on the season, including three field goals. The Patriots kickoff unit also had a difficult day, allowing three kicks to be returned past the 25-yard line. The punt-coverage team made one costly error at the end of the first half when Brandon Bolden kicked a bouncing ball out of the back of the Steelers end zone. Instead of the Pittsburgh drive starting at the 6-yard line, where Bolden touched the football, it came out to the 20. At the end of the half, the Steelers kicked a 32-yard field goal. Bolden also dropped a third-down pass that would have gone for a first down. On another punt, it appeared as though Bolden got up slowly after trying to down the ball near the goal line. It was his first game back after suffering a knee injury in Week 4.

-- LeGarrette Blount had a big day against his former team. The 250-pound back didn't want to be a story line earlier in the week, denying interview requests, saying that he would speak after the game on Sunday. His performance at Heinz Field will certainly keep those requests coming. He ran 24 times for 127 yards and two touchdowns, beating up on the Steelers front-seven late in the game as New England protected its lead. 

-- While the Patriots offensive line provided Blount with enough room to run, it was a relatively sloppy day for Brady's protection up front. Left tackle Nate Solder turned in one drive during which he allowed a pressure and was then flagged for back-to-back holding penalties (one of which was declined). Shaq Mason also appeared to have trouble with Pittsburgh's Jarvis Jones, allowing a couple of pressures and picking up a flag for holding. Joe Thuney and David Andrews -- both of whom had good blocks on James White's score -- also picked up penalties. There will be plenty for offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia to pick at and try to improve in the coming week of practice.