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Yardbarker NFL writers Mike Tunison and Chris Mueller address the hottest issues in the league every week. This week's topic: Are the Patriots vulnerable?
Mueller: The previously unthinkable is plausible. It may be time to count out Touchdown Tom and the Patriots, who finally look mortal. Full disclosure: I thought this was just a phase that would pass. That was 17 days ago. It has not passed.
New England (10-3) is so bad offensively that it can’t even take advantage of bad defenses. Houston is so poor in the secondary that it was torched by Denver rookie QB Drew Lock for 309 yards and three touchdowns in Week 14. The Texans rank in the bottom third of every significant statistical category against the pass. Yet in Week 13 against Houston, Brady had under 100 yards passing with five minutes left in the third quarter. In New England's Week 14 loss to the Chiefs, Kansas City, 25th in total defense, harassed and harangued him into a terrible performance. In his past six games, Brady has completed more than 55 percent of his passes once.
The 2019-2020 NHL Season
The 2019-2020 NHL Season
Against the Chiefs, New England may have fallen victim to bad calls and uncharacteristically poor coaching by Bill Belichick, who left them without challenges when it needed them most. The missed call on N’Keal Harry’s touchdown that wasn’t would usually be moot; a typical Brady-led offense would punch the ball in for six points with little difficulty. It’s obvious that this version of the Patriots can’t take those situations for granted.
And there’s no help on the way. Rob Gronkowski isn’t walking through that door. Brady hasn't looked like a good quarterback since he beat Cleveland in Week 8 (20-for-36, 259 yards). He still has the fire, and the advanced analytics crowd will tell you that the majority of his throws are still sharp. Maybe that's case, but his skill-position players are awful, save Julian Edelman (90 catches, 1,010), who is the team's leading receiver by nearly 500 yards.
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The Week 15 loss at home to the Chiefs, snapping the Patriots' 21-game home losing streak, could cost New England the No. 1 seed. If the Ravens win out, the road to the Super Bowl goes through Baltimore. That would spell almost certain doom for New England, which desperately needs home-field advantage throughout the playoffs to advance to the Super Bowl in Miami.
Normally I’m anything but alarmist about the Patriots, but this looks more and more like an incomplete team, one that might post a gaudy record but has an unfixable, fatal flaw.
Tunison: There's no doubt the Patriots' offense has faltered, and the results have been evident for longer than the current stretch in which they've lost three of their past five. In the first three weeks of the season, Brady posted an aggregate passer rating of 116.5 (current league average 91.2) and an average of 8.6 yards per attempt. In the subsequent 10 weeks, the rating dipped to 78.4 and the yards per attempt average was 6.1. We're not talking about a brief slump, it's sustained struggle.
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Brady's QBR (51.9, 18th in the league) is the lowest since 2006, the first season the stat was tracked. (Baltimore's Lamar Jackson, a potential Brady playoff foe, is No. 1.) 2006, of course, was the season the Patriots were finally bested by the Colts in the AFC Championship Game. You think the Pats' receiving corps is bad now? Back then, Reche Caldwell was his top target, followed by tight end Ben Watson. At least it was 2006 Ben Watson instead of the 39-year-old version on the team in 2019. Edelman is better than any single target they had on that '06 team, though depth is still a problem. Plus, of course, the 29-year-old Brady has some physical advantages over the 42-year-old iteration.
Here's the thing, though: The Patriots that season still got to the AFC Championship Game, where they blew an 18-point lead to the eventual champion Colts in Indianapolis. There might be no easy solution. It's crazy talk for anyone to think Antonio Brown will be re-signed.
Nevertheless, I'm sufficiently beaten down by the Patriots that I have to believe they can find a way to eke out critical wins until they absolutely cannot. Since 2011, there's only been one season in which the Patriots didn't either win the Super Bowl or lose to the eventual champs, and that was 2013 when they were merely eliminated by the Super Bowl loser, the Peyton Manning-led Broncos. So I have faith, perhaps more blind than most years, that they'll figure out some style of play that carries them through this skid. This isn't the most rational argument, but unfortunately, the Pats have burrowed deep into my psyche, like they have with most NFL fans.
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Mueller: Dynasties usually end with a whimper, and maybe the Patriots, despite their exceptional, unprecedented dominance, will do the same. I’m with you on the being beaten-down part, but if this team had solutions to its problems, the Patriots would have implemented them. As it is, they’re currently being investigated by the NFL after the Bengals accused a team employee of taping their sidelines. Some believe it's another example of the Patriots skirting the rules to get an edge. Against the woebegone Bengals (1-12)? Yikes. That would be the clearest sign yet that things are not under control in Foxborough.
It feels more and more like New England has only its reputation left, formidable though it may be. The offense gets all the attention for its struggles, but after not giving up more than 14 points in a game in the first half of the season, New England also looks fallible now on defense. In the Ravens' 37-20 win over the Patriots, Lamar Jackson flummoxed them. Houston's Deshaun Watson (3 TD passes) picked the Patriots apart, and dinged-up Patrick Mahomes (26-for-40, 283 yards) had enough to beat them. Those teams probably all will make the playoffs.
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And if the Titans can steamroll their way in, who’s to say that Ryan Tannehill and Derrick Henry won’t run right over the Patriots? If New England can’t count on its defense, how will the Patriots win? They struggle rushing (23th in the league in rushing), and they are merely pedestrian at stopping the run (15th). They can’t reliably control the football and help their defense stay fresh, and speaking of that unit, they’ve only forced six turnovers in the past five games, after taking the ball away 25 times in their first eight.
Belichick can scheme all he wants, but his scheming only bought them a half against Kansas City in the 2018 AFC Championship Game, and then Brady and Gronkowski turned back the clock in the second half to stave off Mahomes. That’s not happening this year. They have no room for error.
At 10-3, are the Patriots better than most teams? Sure. But the fear factor is gone, particularly against quality competition. If the fear is gone, opponents are less likely to commit unforced errors. If New England is to win its seventh Super Bowl, it must do it the hard way, and likely away from the friendly confines of Gillette Stadium. I bet they won’t.
Tunison: You've overwhelmed me with your facts and logic, and yet I cannot budge from my suspicion that the Patriots are capable of taking the whole thing. Sure, they've probably forfeit home-field advantage to the Ravens, but most likely the Patriots are still going to be No. 2. That means a bye and a home game in the second round.
And most likely that means reaching the Super Bowl requires rematches against the Chiefs and Ravens. Granted those are both teams they've lost to in the regular season, but in the case of Baltimore especially, I think New England benefits from the rematch, as the loss at mid-season was its first look at the relatively new offensive scheme. Given one game to go to the Super Bowl, even on the road, I don't hate their chances, even against a superior opponent.
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As for the Bengals stuff, as pro wrestler Rick Rude says, if you ain't cheatin', you ain't trying. If the Patriots did indeed cheat, it's nice to see they haven't gotten complacent after six championships. That sort of cutthroat behavior, even against the Bengals, would smack less of desperation and more of the outright brutality we've all come to expect out of the Pats.
So, yes, this is a team that is noticeably weaker than years past, and I don't favor New England to take it all in Miami anymore. You have valid points, but I can't count out the Patriots at least making the Super Bowl. At any rate, I've enjoyed the latest annual "Are the Patriots done?" discourse. This might very well be the last.
Related slideshow: The 25 best NFL teams of the 2010s (Provided by Yardbarker)
A few powers emerged during the 2010s, joining the 2000s' carryover dynasty. Several non-Patriots teams submitted elite work this decade, which again became known for New England dominance. Here are the 25 best NFL teams from the 2010s: Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire
Two massive what-ifs come with this team. What if Ryan Shazier avoided a tragic injury? What if the crazy Jesse James ruling was officiated with common sense? Pittsburgh still went 13-3 and ranked third in DVOA, deploying the NFL's top skill-position duo (Antonio Brown and Le'Veon Bell). The former was on an 1,800-yard pace prior to a Week 15 injury; both bailed out the Steelers defense on multiple occasions. Shazier's Week 13 injury gutted said defense, and Brown's continued a pattern of the Steelers' Killer B's being shorthanded in Patriots games. The 45-42 Round 2 loss to the Jaguars ended an era, with 2017 being the biggest missed opportunity. Philip G. Pavely-USA TODAY Sports
Perhaps the best Cardinals team since 1948, Bruce Arians' third Arizona squad went 13-3 and interrupted the Seahawks' NFC West run. Recovering from a second ACL tear, which harpooned a talented 2014 squad, Carson Palmer had his best season. The 36-year-old passer threw 35 touchdowns and finished as the 2015 MVP2, lifting the Cards to wins over the playoff-bound Bengals, Packers, Seahawks and Vikings. Tyrann Mathieu broke out with a five-INT season for a top-10 defense, and Larry Fitzgerald was reborn as a slot weapon. While the Panthers were too much, the Cards' divisional-round OT win over the Packers was one of the era's defining games. Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
The Steelers' eighth Super Bowl team brought another defense-powered squad. Troy Polamalu (seven INTs) and James Harrison (six forced fumbles) were again All-Pros, and Pittsburgh carried the NFL's No. 1 defense. Ben Roethlisberger missed four games due to a suspension, but Charlie Batch and Dennis Dixon oversaw three wins. The Steelers outmuscled the Ravens in a forgotten Round 2 classic, featuring rookie Antonio Brown's entrance music, and halted another Jets run. Mike Wallace's breakout season included a fourth-quarter Super Bowl touchdown, but the Steelers couldn't overcome a 21-3 Packers lead. Anthony J. Causi-Icon Sportswire
Patrick Mahomes' star turn electrified the NFL. The Chiefs traded up 17 spots to land him, and after a year behind Alex Smith, the 2018 MVP threw 50 TD passes for the third-highest-scoring offense ever. All-Pros Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce provided elite support, and Damien Williams scored four playoff TDs after replacing Kareem Hunt. Regular-season losses to the Rams (a 54-51 all-timer) and Patriots (43-40 in Foxborough) provided an unfortunate prelude. Kansas City's leaky defense again could not deter New England in the rematch, though some notable calls went the Pats' way, and Dee Ford's penalty led to another crushing playoff loss. Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports
DVOA's best 2010s team was the rare Patriots squad to falter at Gillette Stadium in January. These Pats went 14-2 and beat the AFC champion Steelers by 13 in Pittsburgh. After trading Randy Moss, the Patriots re-formed around a Rob Gronkowski-Aaron Hernandez duo (16 combined TDs) and led the league in scoring. Brady won his second MVP award, in a 36-TD/four-INT season, and rookie safety Devin McCourty picked off eight passes. The Pats routed the Jets, 45-3, on a December Monday night, but Mark Sanchez stunningly outplayed Brady in the divisional-round rematch. The Pats haven't missed an AFC title game since. Rich Gabrielson-Icon Sportswire
Jim Harbaugh restored the 49ers as a contender immediately. Former No. 1 overall pick Alex Smith finally showed he could be an answer at quarterback, and Frank Gore rushed for 1,211 yards and 12 TDs. Vic Fangio's defense led the way for the 13-3 team. San Francisco ranked second defensively. Both of its inside linebackers, Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman, were All-Pros, with a pass-rush combo of Justin Smith (7.5 sacks, All-Pro) and Aldon Smith (14 sacks) adding a dimension. The 49ers ousted the Saints in a Round 2 thriller, but two fumbled punt returns cost them in a loss to the Giants. Tony Medina-Icon Sportswire
An interesting team to place, Sean McVay's second Rams iteration added star power. Brandin Cooks and Aqib Talib came over in trades. Aaron Donald (20.5 sacks) was probably the NFL's best player last season, and Todd Gurley's multidimensional brilliance keyed an 8-0 start. But injuries to Gurley and Cooper Kupp hurt the team, with Jared Goff's progression slowing down the stretch. Gurley has not been the same since a late-season knee setback, and despite C.J. Anderson's stopgap work, the Rams needed a seminal blown call to beat the Saints. Only these Rams and the 1971 Dolphins failed to score a touchdown in a Super Bowl. Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports
Drew Brees was neck-and-neck with Mahomes in the MVP race for months. The 39-year-old passer shattered his own completion percentage record (74.4 percent), and statement midseason wins over the Eagles and Rams moved the Saints to 10-1. Alvin Kamara and Michael Thomas progressed into elite weapons, and a rebuilt defense provided security recent Brees teams had lacked. Brees' momentum stalled late in the season, and the Saints were not quite themselves in either playoff game. The Nickell Robey-Coleman non-call likely cost the Saints a Super Bowl berth, but the Rams still drove for two field goals after that sequence. Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports
The first of the Seahawks' four straight No. 1-ranked scoring defenses helped the '12 team lead the NFL in DVOA. The Seahawks struck gold with Russell Wilson, ditching their Matt Flynn plans and watching their third-round pick guide an 11-5 team (8-0 at home) featuring a rejuvenated Marshawn Lynch. The 2010 trade get's only All-Pro season ended with 1,590 yards and 11 TDs. But the Legion of Boom drove these Seahawks, who brashly announced their arrival with a win over the Patriots. Richard Sherman's rapid rise began with this eight-INT year. After a Round 1 win in Washington, Seattle erased a 20-0 deficit in Atlanta but lost on a final-seconds field goal. Ric Tapia/Icon SMI/Corbis/Icon Sportswire-Getty Images
After a 3-3 start, first-year Bronco Peyton Manning turned Tim Tebow's troops into Colts West. Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker played the Marvin Harrison-Reggie Wayne roles, helping Manning to his QB-record sixth first-team All-Pro honor. Von Miller turned in his best regular season, with 18.5 sacks; he and Elvis Dumervil combined for 12 forced fumbles. Denver won 10 straight to close the regular season, including a runaway win in Baltimore, and ranked top five on offense and defense. But the young defense allowed 38 points in the Ravens rematch, with Rahim Moore's misplay costing the Broncos a likely Super Bowl berth. Dustin Bradford-Getty Images
The second and final year of the Matt Ryan-Kyle Shanahan partnership produced historic results. The Falcons' 33.8 points per game are eighth-most in the Super Bowl era. Ryan earned MVP honors, throwing 38 TD passes and averaging a monstrous 9.3 yards per attempt. The Falcons snapped a three-year playoff drought and won both of their playoff games by at least 16 points, with Shanahan's offense covering for a 27th-ranked defense. Atlanta lost top cornerback Desmond Trufant late in the season, laying the groundwork for the most crushing loss in NFL history. With the Dan Quinn era on its last legs, Super Bowl LI was the turning point. Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports
The lone AFC team in the past 16 seasons not quarterbacked by Tom Brady, Peyton Manning or Ben Roethlisberger to book a Super Bowl berth is probably the salary cap era's most random champion. The Ravens went 10-6 (after two 12-4 seasons), lost twice by 30-plus points and fired offensive coordinator Cam Cameron that December. Jacoby Jones' 70-yard touchdown saved the Ravens in Denver, and Joe Flacco's best NFL stretch continued with six TD passes against the Patriots and 49ers. Though the Ravens lost Super Bowl XLVII's post-blackout portion, their goal-line stand — in Ed Reed and Ray Lewis' final Ravens moments — preserved an unexpected title. Tony Medina-Icon Sportswire
Aaron Rodgers' arrival reestablished the Packers as an NFC power. Green Bay went 10-6 and carried the No. 2 defense, led by Clay Matthews' 13.5 sacks, into the playoffs. The sixth-seeded Packers' most memorable outing came when Rodgers sliced up the top-slotted Falcons in Round 2 — a 31-for-36, 366-yard, three-TD masterpiece. Super Bowl XLV is also oddly overlooked, but Rodgers and third-year wideout Jordy Nelson (140 yards, most by a Packer in a Super Bowl) displayed their early rapport and drove the team to a 21-3 lead on the Steelers. A parade, and an awkward White House visit, ensued. Robin Alam-Icon Sportswire
Jim Harbaugh kept Alex Smith on the bench after a midseason concussion, despite a 70.3 percent completion rate. Joining a second-ranked defense that had six Pro Bowlers, Colin Kaepernick gave the 11-4-1 49ers another dimension. The second-year passer escorted the 49ers to the No. 2 seed and delivered one of the best performances in playoff history. Kaepernick accounted for 444 yards (181 rushing) and four touchdowns against the Packers and led a 17-point comeback to beat the Falcons a week later. The 49ers nearly erased a 22-point Super Bowl deficit, but a controversial pass interference no-call ended their best Harbaugh-era championship chance. Jeff Lewis-Icon Sportswire
Cam Newton was unstoppable for most of Carolina's 15-1 season, accounting for 45 touchdowns in arguably the best dual-threat season ever. The Panthers outscored their opponents by 192 points, with Luke Kuechly and breakout cornerback Josh Norman leading their No. 6-ranked defense. They toyed with a 13-3 Cardinals team in a 49-15 championship-game statement and opened as six-point favorites in Super Bowl 50. But Carolina left right tackle Mike Remmers one-on-one with Von Miller too often, and the Panthers committed four turnovers in a 14-point loss. Newton has not made the Pro Bowl since. Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports
Creating one of the easiest MVP decisions in NFL history, Aaron Rodgers threw 45 touchdown passes and six interceptions. His receiver depth chart —Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson, James Jones, Donald Driver and rookie Randall Cobb — accompanied tight end Jermichael Finley (767 yards, eight TDs) in an all-time armada. The Packers scored the fourth-most points in NFL history and started 13-0, losing only to the 7-9 Chiefs. Green Bay's defense ranked 19th despite Charles Woodson's final All-Pro honor. But the Packers became the only 15-1 team to lose its first playoff game. The Giants' 37-20 upset docks this team historically. Nick Laham-Getty Images
The weirdest team on this list, the Giants were outscored in a 9-7 season. They lost four straight, including a 49-24 whitewash in New Orleans, after a 6-2 start that featured a win in Foxborough. Big Blue got healthy in time for one of the NFL's great playoff runs. Eli Manning's 1,219 passing yards are the most in one postseason; Hakeem Nicks' 444 receiving yards remain second-most. Nicks torched the Packers in Round 2, while Manning threw 58 passes without a turnover against the 49ers. New York's Justin Tuck-Osi Umenyiora-Mathias Kiwanuka-Jason Pierre-Paul NASCAR package held off Tom Brady in Super Bowl XLVI, and Manning-to-Mario Manningham remains a Mt. Rushmore throw. Thearon W. Henderson-Getty Images
Although the preseason favorite's "people think we suck" routine was laughable, New England did lose thrice by double digits to non-playoff teams. The 11-5 Patriots had the AFC's third-best record but booked their record ninth straight bye. They (again) thrived in January, dominating the Chargers; Sony Michel scored six playoff TDs (third all time). They held the Chiefs scoreless in the AFC title game's first half. While the Pats caught a break on Dee Ford's gaffe, they left no doubt against the Rams. The Pats hit Jared Goff 15 times, and All-Pro Stephon Gilmore's INT secured a sixth title — in their most dominant Super Bowl showing. Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
The only 600-point offense in NFL history took Peyton Manning's legend to another level, with the limited passer piloting Adam Gase's turbocharged offense into unexplored territory. Manning's 55-TD/5,477-yard season included the NFL's first instance of five players (Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker, Julius Thomas, Wes Welker, Knowshon Moreno) scoring 10-plus TDs. After Manning's seven-touchdown Week 1, the Broncos went 13-3 and fairly easily navigated the AFC playoffs despite being without defensive stalwarts Von Miller and Chris Harris. Seattle exposed Denver's injury-limited lineup in a 43-8 Super Bowl rout. Rich Gabrielson-Icon Sportswire
A dynasty that wasn't, the Seahawks were not quite the superpower they were in 2013. All-Pros Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas played Super Bowl XLIX with major injuries, and Cliff Avril and corner Jeremy Lane left that game. But still, the most pivotal interception in NFL history complicates Seattle's legacy. The Seahawks started 4-3 and lost Bobby Wagner to a midseason injury. Once the All-Pro linebacker returned, Seattle held five of its final seven regular-season opponents to single digits. Russell Wilson's pinpoint toss to Jermaine Kearse capped a 16-point comeback to oust the Packers, but the 28-24 Patriots loss was a beginning-of-the-end scene. MSA-Icon Sportswire
On pace for 40-plus touchdown passes, Carson Wentz was cruising toward MVP honors before his two ligament tears that December. The Eagles (third in points scored, fourth defensively) rode a stacked defensive line and top-class O-line, even without future Hall of Fame left tackle Jason Peters, to the NFC's No. 1 seed at 13-3. Nick Foles provided stunning insurance, throwing for 725 yards and six touchdowns between the NFC championship game (a 38-7 romp past the favored Vikings) and Super Bowl LII. His Philly Special touchdown became an iconic NFL moment. Brandon Graham's inside rush interrupted a shootout, securing the Eagles' first Super Bowl parade. Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
Tom Brady's Deflategate ban likely cost the Patriots a 15-1 record, but they still went 3-1 without him. New England (14-2) deployed its typical bend-but-don't-break defense (first in scoring). Brady was masterful upon returning, throwing 28 TD passes and just two INTs. Much of this came with Martellus Bennett starting for the injured Rob Gronkowski. The Pats routed the Steelers in the AFC championship game and ruined the Falcons' quest at their first title. Four Patriot pass catchers eclipsed 70 yards in that still-unfathomable 25-point Super Bowl LI comeback, with James White leading the way with 110 yards and three TDs. Leslie Plaza Johnson-Icon Sportswire
These Patriots went 12-4 but had Darrelle Revis and a healthy Gronkowski. Gronk returned from a torn ACL to his all-world perch, while one-and-done Revis made his final All-Pro team. Brady's late-career renaissance coincided with Gronk's return to form after the Chiefs' September blowout. After "On to Cincinnati," the Pats won seven straight despite not having a 500-yard rusher, and they secured the AFC's 1 seed. They needed the Julian Edelman double-pass and a trick formation to oust the Ravens but had no issues with the Colts in the Deflategate game. Despite the Seahawks' era-defining mistake, Brady threw for 328 yards and four TDs in Super Bowl XLIX. MSA-Icon Sportswire
These Broncos had a breaking-down Peyton Manning and were down two tackles. An all-time defense rendered that moot. The 2000 Ravens are not docked much for their shaky offense; these Broncos approached that level against a tougher schedule. Wade Phillips' 3-4 scheme featured apex Von Miller and a still-productive DeMarcus Ware, and Denver's Chris Harris- and Aqib Talib-led secondary provided an ideal complement. The Broncos held Aaron Rodgers to a career-worst night and did enough during Brock Osweiler's starts to go 12-4. Denver's pass rush hit Brady 17 times in the AFC title game, and Miller's mastery turned a Carolina coronation into one for Denver's defense. Hector Acevedo/Zuma Press-Icon Sportswire
Prior to making the best statement any team did this decade, the Seahawks went 13-3 and posted the top DVOA mark (40.1 percent) by a Super Bowl champion since the 1999 Rams. Free agent defensive ends Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril (16.5 combined sacks) helped Seattle's defense reach a higher level, and the Russell Wilson-Marshawn Lynch inside-outside game stayed on its game. The Legion of Boom produced three Pro Bowlers (Sherman, Thomas, Kam Chancellor), and the Seahawks beat the Saints and 49ers twice. The Broncos offense had most of its starters, but the Seahawks muzzled the record-setting attack. This was perhaps the 21st century's finest roster-building achievement. Rich Kane-Icon Sportswire
Patriots beat Bills 24-17, win 11th straight AFC East crown .
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) Tom Brady appeared for his postgame media session with an ice pack on his right elbow. Bill Belichick was sporting a brand new AFC East championship hat. The New England Patriots had things a little tougher this year, but they came out on top yet again.Brady passed for 271 yards and a touchdown, sneaked for a third-down conversion to set up another score and threw a downfield block on another scoring drive to help the defending Super Bowl champions beat Buffalo 24-17 on Saturday and clinch their 11th straight AFC East title.
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