Even without playing, Patriots still win

So this is how New England's season is going. Even when the Patriots don't play, they still win.

New England enjoyed its bye this weekend and when it returned to work Monday, found it had increased its lead in the race for home-field advantage in the AFC.

When the Colts lost Sunday night at San Diego, they dropped three games behind the Patriots in the race to challenge New England.

Pittsburgh is two games behind New England, but the Steelers must play in New England on Dec. 9. If the Steelers do not beat the Patriots that day, it's possible New England could clinch home-field advantage then, if not sooner.

But the Colts' loss aided the Patriots' efforts to lock up home-field advantage throughout the playoffs as early as possible.

However, in typical Patriot fashion, New England isn't focused on home-field advantage right now. It's focused on Sunday night's opponent, the Bills. It's not a simple challenge.

Buffalo has won five of its past six games, surrendering an average of 14.5 points per game during that streak. Were it not for last-second field goal losses to Denver and Dallas, Buffalo could just as easily be 7-2 instead of 5-4.

"They're one of the hottest teams in the league," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said at his Monday press conference, fresh off his bye.

Not only are they one of the hottest, they are one of the most eager. Just as Buffalo was electric for the Monday night game earlier this season against Dallas, it will be the same way for Sunday night's game against the unbeaten Patriots. Buffalo is ready for its crack at the Patriots.

"They're playing much better than when we saw them earlier in the year," Belichick said, referring to the Patriots' 38-7 Sept. 23 win over the Bills. "Defensively, they don't give up much. They're playing very well early in the game. No one is really getting to them in the first quarter."

Oldie, but goodie

Way too often in the past there were cries that Green Bay quarterback Brett Favre was finished.

Only now, at 38, Favre is playing as though he is just getting started.

Favre leads the league in passing yards with 2,757 -- 71 more than New England quarterback Tom Brady.

Nine games into this season, Favre is on pace to throw for 4,901 yards, which would be a personal single-season best, easily surpassing the 4,413 he threw for during his MVP season in 1995, when Favre won the first of three NFL MVP awards.

He has completed 67.2 percent of his passes, better than his all-time, single-season best of 65.4 in 2003.

At this rate, he will complete 423 passes, and in his previous 16 seasons, he never had more than 372 completions in a season.

He is playing smarter, sharper, better, and now speculation around the league has shifted from whether this will be Favre's last season to how many more he might want to play. Favre is performing like he is getting younger, not older.

Pick six

In back-to-back-to-back weeks, San Diego cornerback Antonio Cromartie has scored two touchdowns, recorded the longest play in NFL history and picked off Colts quarterback Peyton Manning three times.

Yet he still is not officially a starter in San Diego, though it's more of a formality than anything else.

Cromartie has played plenty this season as San Diego's No. 3 cornerback. But with San Diego's regular starting cornerback Quentin Jammer nursing a hamstring injury that prevented him from playing Sunday night against Indianapolis and is expected to sideline him again Sunday against Jacksonville, Cromartie isn't leaving the starting lineup anytime soon.

Cromartie is expected to make his second NFL start Sunday, one week after his first NFL start against the Colts. It is difficult to envision how the Chargers now could not start Cromartie, even after Jammer returns.

Cromartie leads the NFL with six interceptions. He had a one-handed interception Sunday night (VIDEO) that was as impressive as any interception this season.

After this season, it will be easy enough to make room for him. San Diego's other starting cornerback, Drayton Florence, is scheduled to become a free agent. But San Diego is finding that whenever Cromartie is in the lineup, he is making plays that are making it increasingly difficult to take him out of it.

Back to the future

Jaguars quarterback David Garrard suffered a high ankle sprain on Oct. 22 against Indianapolis, just before Jacksonville embarked on a three-game road streak.

Yet during those three road games, Jacksonville backup quarterback Quinn Gray led the Jaguars to an impressive 2-1 record, with wins at Tampa and at Tennessee. He did exactly what he was supposed to do, and then some, holding serve and improving the Jaguars' position until Garrard healed.

Now, Gray can go back to the bench as Garrard is expected to be ready to return for Sunday's game against the Chargers. The Jaguars said Monday they expect Garrard to be well enough to start.

When he returns, he will bring with him a streak of 148 passing attempts without an interception. Garrard is the only full-time starting quarterback that has not thrown an interception this season.

Another comeback

Garrard isn't the only significant player from the AFC South returning this week. TexansPro Bowl wide receiver Andre Johnson also is expected to return after being sidelined since the second week of the season with a severely sprained knee.

Houston intentionally nurtured Johnson and proceeded with extreme caution, not wanting to bring him back until the Texans felt their receiver was fully healthy. Now, after Houston's bye week, Johnson is. He is ready to play just in time for the New Orleans Saints.

Early in the season, Johnson was the best receiver in the league. Without him, the Texans' offense hasn't been nearly as dynamic. Last season, Johnson led the NFL with 103 catches, being voted to his second Pro Bowl.

The birthday boy

Monday's stat of the day has nothing to do with anything that happened on the field this weekend. Tuesday is the birthday of Carolina quarterback Vinny Testaverde, who will be 44 years young.

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