A gift from Big Ben

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A gift from Big Ben

And just like that, the Pats are the No. 1 seed.

Not officially, but with the Steelers loss last night in power-shortaged San Francisco, the Patriots now sit alone atop the AFC. Now, with victories over Miami and Buffalo, the Pats will clinch home field advantage throughout the playoffs. That means they'll have already played their last road game of the season.

At least until Indianapolis.

Oops. Lost my mind for a second. But there's no denying that Week 15 did one hell of a job improving the Pats playoff chances. I wrote as much yesterday, but Pittsburgh's loss just hammered it home: With three weeks until the start of the playoffs, the AFC is the Patriots' to lose.

Quick transition.

What was Ben Roethlisberger thinking playing in that game last night?

I know he fancies himself a superhero (although I don't think the proposed name, Alleged Rapeman, will catch on), but his performance went beyond heroic and crossed over into selfish.

The guy could barely walk. He could barely throw. He could barely do anything you'd expect from an NFL quarterback especially when facing one of the best defenses in the league. Yet he insisted on playing; somehow his coaches LET him play.

With Roethlisberger under center last night, the Steelers didn't have a shot. You could say the same thing for "without Roethlisberger," but who cares? The playoffs are only three weeks away. What's more important: A first round bye or a healthy Ben Roethlisberger?

Anyway, in closing: Congrats, Ben. You're a true hero. You just cost yourself two weeks of rest, and for what? A loss, and the chance to have the world hear Jon Gruden undress you with his tongue for a few hours?

Good stuff, man.

New England thanks you.

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

Gronkowski returns to practice; Mason, Branch still missing

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Gronkowski returns to practice; Mason, Branch still missing

FOXBORO -- The Patriots had a welcome face back on the practice field on Wednesday, as tight end Rob Gronkowski returned to action after missing the team's previous five practices as he dealt with an injury. 

Gronkowski participated in the warmup period of practice and then remained with the majority of his teammates for drills. 

The last time Gronkowski was spotted on the field was last Monday, which was the first of three joint practices between the Patriots and the Bears. He pulled up after pursuing a Tom Brady pass, walked along the sideline, met with head trainer Jim Whalen, and then left practice early. He did not suit up for Thursday's game against Chicago. 

Gronkowski has not participated in a preseason game since 2012. 

Patriots not spotted at Wednesday's practice were Shaq Mason, Jonathan Cooper, Sebastian Vollmer (on the physically unable to perform list) and Dion Lewis (also on PUP). Alan Branch, who has been suspended by the team before last week's preseason game, was also missing. 

Jabaal Sheard, Rob Ninkovich, Malcolm Mitchell, Shea McClellin, Tre' Jackson (PUP) and Danny Amendola (PUP) were present for warmups but went to a lower field for conditioning. Amendola and Jackson were not in pads for the short-and-shells session. 

Jon Bon Jovi was taking in the session alongside Patriots chairman and CEO Robert Kraft. 

Wednesday's Red Sox-Rays lineups: Ramirez gets night off

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Wednesday's Red Sox-Rays lineups: Ramirez gets night off

Hanley Ramirez is getting a night off as the Red Sox look for their third straight win against the Rays tonight at Tropicana Field.

Travis Shaw will play first base, with Brock Holt at third.

Tonight's lineups:

RED SOX:
Dustin Pedroia 2B
Xander Bogaerts SS
David Ortiz DH
Mookie Betts RF
Jackie Bradley Jr. CF
Sandy Leon C
Brock Holt 3B
Travis Shaw 1B
Andrew Benintendi LF
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Rick Porcello P

RAYS:
Logan Forsythe 2B
Kevin Kiermaier CF
Evan Longoria 3B
Brad Miller SH
Matt Duffy SS
Logan Morrison 1B
Steven Souza Jr. RF
Corey Dickerson LF
Bobby Wilson C
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Matt Andriese P