NFL playoff picture: Patriots' win opens race for tops in the AFC

Stew Milne-USA TODAY Sports

After a big Monday night win, the Patriots now have a chance to surpass the Texans for the first seed in the conference. Oh, don't count Denver out of it, either.

The New England Patriots may have a legitimate claim to being the best team in the NFL right now. Monday night's thrashing of the Houston Texans was the seventh win in a row. It also vaulted the Patriots into the second seed in the playoff order, and the climb might not stop there.

More: NFC playoff picture

New England now sits at 10-3, one game behind the Texans. Just as important, the Patriots have an edge in the tiebreaker department thanks to Monday night's win. An similar drubbing of the Broncos in October further inoculates the Patriots from the other team with a shot at one of the first-round byes in the AFC.

Next week, the Patriots are in San Francisco. The 49ers have the kind of defense that has given Tom Brady and Co. trouble this season. New England also has a strange block with NFC West teams, losing to the Seahawks and Cardinals early in the season. (Think about that for minute if you're a Cardinals fan, your team beat the Patriots two weeks before starting a nine-game losing streak).

After a tough game against the 49ers, New England has a soft landing prior to the playoffs with a game in Jacksonville and a season finale against the Dolphins at Foxborough.

Tom Brady's four touchdowns on Monday night confirmed fears about Houston's pass defense. That could be a matchup problem over the last three games with a home-and-home set against Andrew Luck and the Colts. Indianapolis' offensive line and the defense shouldn't be a big problem for the Texans, but it's a team capable of surprises, as we've learned.

Sandwiched between those two games against the Colts, the Texans host Adrian Peterson and the Vikings. Beating a team with Christian Ponder at quarterback shouldn't be a big hurdle; however, Peterson is playing on, or near, his home turf and would love to remind the Houston Police Department how much they screwed up this summer.

If the Patriots win one more game than the Texans do over the next three weeks, it will be enough to give New England the top spot in the AFC along with home field advantage and a first-round bye.

The only other team with an outside shot at climbing into the top two spots is the afore mentioned Broncos. Remember, Denver lost to both Houston and New England this season, so Peyton Manning et al would have to best either of those teams on record alone. The Broncos play the Ravens on the road next week before a pair of home games against the Browns and Chiefs to finish the season.

Meanwhile, at the bottom of the AFC ... OK, who are we kidding. Unless the Ravens' new offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell uses the same magic touch that got the Colts to 2-14 last season, the three teams chasing the bottom three spots in the AFC all look like dead men walking.

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