A month ago, when the Patriots were 1-3 and facing a 13-point third-quarter deficit to the Houston Texans, it would’ve been crazy to suggest New England had a chance of winning the AFC East over the Buffalo Bills.
Oh, how things can change.
The Patriots went on to win that game and, after losing the following week to the Dallas Cowboys, now have won three straight, including Sunday’s 24-6 victory over the Carolina Panthers. At 5-4, New England is over .500 for the first time this season.
Nearly 400 miles south of Bank of America Stadium, the Bills suffered an embarrassing defeat in Jacksonville to the previously 1-6 Jaguars. Buffalo now is 5-3, only a half-game ahead of the Patriots for first place in the division. The Patriots and Bills will play each other twice in December.
So, it’s official: The AFC East is up for grabs.
After New England’s Oct. 17 loss to Dallas, FiveThirtyEight gave the Patriots a 21% chance of making the playoffs and a 5% chance of winning the division. Now? it’s 56% and 22%, respectively.
Bill Belichick’s team now is in control of its own destiny. If the Patriots win out, they’ll be AFC East champions. That exact scenario is unlikely to happen — games against the Bills, Cleveland Browns, Tennessee Titans and Indianapolis Colts all will be difficult — but stranger things have happened in the Belichick era.
Perhaps more importantly, Buffalo’s loss offered further proof that the AFC is wide open this season.
The Bills largely have been labeled the alphas of the conference, and they just lost to the Jags. The top team in the standings, the Tennessee Titans, lost to the Jets earlier this season and might be without Derrick Henry until the playoffs. The second-place Ravens are good, but they basically are the same team that lost to last season’s inferior Patriots team. The Las Vegas Raiders are, well, the Raiders — trust them at your own peril.
New England currently is seventh in the AFC, good enough for the final wild-card spot. The two teams directly above them: the Los Angeles Chargers, whom they just beat, and the Pittsburgh Steelers, who would fall behind New England with a loss to the Chicago Bears on Monday night.
Lurking in the shadows are Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs, who entered Week 9 at 4-4 but, obviously, can’t be counted out.
None of this is to say the Patriots should be considered Super Bowl contenders. After all, a rookie quarterback never has led a team to a Super Bowl.
New England has plenty of warts. Jones is promising but prone to the same inconsistencies that plague most rookie quarterbacks. The defense is among the NFL’s best, but the secondary is another injury away from being a total mess and the Patriots don’t have a ton of speed at linebacker. The offensive line has improved since its ugly start to the season but still suffers breakdowns that result in stuffed runs and Jones being drilled in the pocket.
The Patriots have multiple issues currently preventing them from being great. However, so, too, does every team in the AFC — including the Bills.