AFC contenders are finally in focus

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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 rlevine@comcastsportsnet.com. Follow Rich on Twitter at http:twitter.comrich_levine

Patriots represented at Stanford, Utah, Missouri pro days

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Patriots represented at Stanford, Utah, Missouri pro days

The Patriots had a busy day of gathering intel on Thursday. A very busy day. 

While Bill Belichick and Matt Patricia represented the Patriots at Ohio State and Notre Dame, respectively, the team had other representatives at high-profile pro days around the country including Stanford, Missouri and Utah. 

Here are a few of the players the Patriots were able to get a better look at . . . 

Stanford: The Patriots have shown plenty of interest in players coming from David Shaw's program in the past (Cameron Fleming, Jordan Richards), and they'll undoubtedly appreciate the talents brought to the table by two of the school's projected first-rounders in Solomon Thomas and Christian McCaffrey. Thomas is a powerful 6-foot-3, 273-pound defensive lineman who can play just about anywhere up front. McCaffrey, meanwhile, is one of the most athletic running backs in this year's class. He worked out as a receiver on Thursday and could fill a multitude of roles as a pro, whether it's as a back, a slot receiver or a kick-returner. The Patriots would need to trade back into the first round to have a prayer at landing either player. 

Utah: The Utes have a handful of draftable offensive linemen and one who is expected to come off the board in the first round. Garrett Bolles, who lit up the combine, might be the top tackle available -- and there are those who believe he's just starting to tap into his potential. Isaac Asiata is a monster guard (6-3, 323, 34-inch arms) who put up more bench-press reps than any other offensive lineman at this year's combine, and center JJ Dielman is an intriguing later-round option. One of the quickest risers in the pre-draft process? Marcus Williams, who is an eye-popping athlete. He was top-five for those at his position at the combine in the vertical, broad jump and three-cone drill, and he looks like a ready-made NFL free safety. The Patriots are pretty well stocked at that spot, but if they're picking at the bottom of the first round and going with the best player available, they may very well think that's Williams. 

Missouri: Defensive players were in focus for scouts and coaches at the Tigers pro day, and Charles Harris was the headliner. One of the most impressive players within a very deep class of edge defenders, the 6-3, 253-pounder appears to have the quickness and burst to give NFL tackles fits. One of Harris' teammates up front, Josh Augusta, ran a pretty ridiculous 40-yard dash Thursday, clocking in just a shade under five seconds. Ridiculous, why? Because he's a defensive tackle who wighed 390 pounds during the season. That's moving. Augusta dropped down to 347 after being diagnosed with a thyroid issue in January and is looking to get to 335. Corner Aarion Penton can competes well for the football, but his size (5-9, 177) may scare teams off until late in the draft. 

Curran: Patriots, Darrelle Revis have not discussed deal

Curran: Patriots, Darrelle Revis have not discussed deal

The Patriots and Darrelle Revis have not discussed a deal that would bring the cornerback back to New England, according to CSNNE's Tom Curran.

This comes after CBS Sports' Jason La Canfora reported multiple anonymous NFL executives were convinced Revis would return to the Patriots.

Revis spent one season with the Patriots in 2014 when New England won Super Bowl XLIX. However, the Patriots did not pick up Revis' second-year option in the following offseason, and he elected to sign with the New York Jets in free agency. He played 14 games in 2015 and 15 games in 2016. He finished last season with 53 tackles, five pass deflections and one interception

The 31-year-old cornerback declined significantly during the 2016 season. Even Tom Brady said he noticed Revis was struggling phyiscally in the Patriots' Week 12 win over the Jets.

"I know he's not feeling great," Brady said in November. "I could see after the game, he winced a few times getting up. It looked like his leg was bothering him a little bit. But he's still very close on a lot of those plays. Even though you're hitting them, he's still very competitive.

"He's been one of the great players in the league for a long time. He's given up more plays this year than in the past, but you've gotta have a lot of respect for his style and his game."