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Patriots' win over Broncos could loom large in January

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Having home field advantage in the playoffs doesn't guarantee anything. But New England's 43-21 takedown of the Denver Broncos on Sunday was a reminder of how crucial it can be, especially in this rivalry.

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The Broncos' decisive loss in Foxborough was their third in as many seasons since Peyton Manning joined the team, and it increased the potential that Manning could return in February. We still see Denver as the most complete team in the NFL, and a win on Sunday would have put them in prime position to earn the No. 1 seed. Now the race is just getting started, and it's wide open.

New England's next five games are remarkably brutal: at Indianapolis, vs. Detroit, at Green Bay, at San Diego, and vs. Miami. The Dolphins look like a team ready to stick around the AFC East race. Then again, the Patriots have looked capable of beating anyone anywhere over the last five weeks.

The turnaround starts with Tom Brady and their pass protection. Brady was among the league's worst quarterbacks in yards-per-attempt over the first month. Now he's playing better than anyone, including Manning. Brady has 18 touchdowns and one interception over that span, and is playing with a barely contained ferocity. Rob Gronkowski has more yards over the last five games than any stretch of his career. Then again:

"It isn't about stats; this isn't fantasy football," coach Bill Belichick said in typical dour fashion Sunday.

On a night where both teams couldn't rush the ball, the difference in arm strength between Brady and Manning showed up. And the difference in defense was not what we expected. Brady received solid protection overall, while the Patriots did a laudable job moving Manning off his "spot" by sending pressure up the middle. New England's secondary has done a nice job all season limiting big plays.

Throw in a huge day for the Patriots' special teams, and this is a squad firing on all cylinders. They have won their last five games by an average of 18.6 points, with two of those wins against AFC division leaders.

"We have figured out some of the things we are good at," Brady said after the game in his typically understated fashion.

The NFL season is a marathon of adjustments, and no coach-player combination is better at figuring out their strengths and weaknesses during the year than Brady and Belichick. New England has figured out over the last five weeks that they have the necessary ingredients to be playing deep into January again.

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